Culture established, Rutgers looks to change the conversation

He gets it. He may disagree, it may provide an edge and down right pisses him off, but he gets it.

To Joe Litterio, entering his sixth season leading the Rutgers baseball program, preseason predictions pegging the Scarlet Knights to the bottom of the Big Ten is something he understands.

“We have to win, you can’t blame them,” Litterio said of D1Baseball.com and Perfect Game respectively projecting the Scarlet Knights to finish next-to-last and last in the Big Ten. “We have to get our butts to the tournament. That’s the bottom line.”

As is their nature, preseason predication are often predicated on what has occurred. Predicting the future is tough enough as is, before adding the variable of 18-23-year-olds maturing, both mentally and physically, at various points. What has been is a safe way to assume what is to come.

And for the Scarlet Knights what has been hasn’t been much.

Since the 2015 season, Rutgers’ first as a Big Ten member, the Scarlet Knights are 30-59 in conference play, with respective final placings of 11th, 11th, 12th and 11th. Absent from NCAA Tournament play since 2007 and void of a winning record since 2014, past results have fostered little external expectation.

But as the 2019 season is less than two weeks away, to Litterio, what has been and what is history, will remain history;  relegated to record books, scorecards and web archives. Now is the time for Rutgers, look, think and step forward.

Before the Polar Vortex of 2019 engulfed and froze the Midwest and East Coast during the last week January, Rutgers was able to take to Bainton Field and scrimmage on Sunday, afforded a luxury of having intra-squad competition during the first weekend of team spring practice. The enjoying of being back on the field was short-lived. With the players having fielding woes and making more errors than acceptable, Litterio didn’t hold back his displeasure at practice’s end.

“One of my conversations was about what’s this inferior attitude that we have,” said Litterio, 120-142-1 through five seasons at Rutgers. “Rutgers was a top-of-the-league program, it had always been that. Then, we go into the Big Ten and, I think, when you’re an underdog all of the time, you start to think you’re an underdog. And I think that’s something we have to shed.”

The foundation to shedding that mentality started last year. Working with two new assistants, Phil Cundari, previously the pitching coach at Seton Hall, and Jim Duffy, stepping away from his role as the head coach at Manhattan, along with a newly introduced Director of Player Development, Peter Barron, Litterio and alongside a retooled staff worked hard to change the mindset of the players and the program’s overall culture, in hopes to restoring the past glory which saw Rutgers appear in six NCAA Tournaments between 1998-2007.

And for the first eight weeks the results were promising. After an April 11, 4-2 win over Lafayette, Rutgers was 18-11 on the season, and had four victories in six Big Ten games. Entering the ninth weekend of the season, Rutgers had already claimed weekend series against Old Dominion, Army, Florida Gulf Coast, LaSalle, Penn State and Michigan State. With six weekend wins, already the team doubled the number of weekend series captured in 2017.

It appeared the Scarlet Knights were on their way to reaching the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in program history. But the midweek win over Lafayette was followed by a weekend sweep at the hands of Illinois. Rutgers did rebound to claim four of their next five contests, including a weekend victory over Nebraska, but from April 27 through the end of the season, a 3-10 showing, including 1-10 in the Big Ten, saw RU conclude another year without postseason participation.

Finishing Big Ten play at 7-16, the third time in four springs RU has finished with exactly seven wins, it would be easy to chalk the 2018 season as another season that’s expected to come to pass for Rutgers. But at 25-25, Rutgers did not have a losing campaign. Under Cundari’s guidance, Rutgers pitched to a 4.82 ERA, a full run lower than 2017’s 6.11 mark. The team’s fielding percentage improved from .952 to .969. Offensively, a .270 team batting average was squarely in the middle of the Big Ten at seventh, ahead of Illinois and Iowa, both NCAA Tournament bubble teams.

And to Literrio what occurred off the field may was immeasurable and worth more than any win or can be defined by a statistical improvement.

“My staff was all brand new last year, we made improvements in a lot of categories and stats, but just changing the whole culture of the program, that was one of the major things last year we sought to do and we were able to accomplish that,” Litterio said. “Last year was about how are we going about doing all of this as a staff, how are going to implement it and see how the guys take to it. Now going in, it’s old hat now. The kids know what to expect.”

In addition to players knowing what to expect, having a greater sense of accountability and a deeper report with coaches, there is talent throughout Rutgers’ roster. From seniors like third baseman Carmen Sclafani and right-handed pitcher Serafino Brito, players in their last go who want to taste the postseason for the first time, along with players like left-handed pitcher Harry Rutkowski and outfielder Mike Nyisztor, two sophomores who showed provided key production as freshmen, down to newcomers in first baseman Chris Brito, right-handed pitcher Garrett French, catcher Peter Serruto and shortstop David Soto, four players of arguably the best recruiting class Rutgers has had in a decade, Rutgers is expected to field its most talented team as a Big Ten member. Litterio says the depth on the mound has doubled from last year, and there are guys in numbers they can run out. The potential is there for Rutgers to make noise and turn heads.

But potential is just a prospect of opportunities, what might come, nothing is promised nor guaranteed. And potential cannot mend the perception of the Scarlet Knights. Only what does come over the next three months will ultimately change the conversation and force the Scarlet Knights to garner greater respect.

“Our recruiting is better, our younger guys are good, and we’re gonna be good…We’re on our way. But I don’t blame anybody else for the predictions, we have to win baseball games and get to the tournament, make some noise there and it’ll all cure.”

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