Season Preview: Rutgers

Set to embark on a fifth season in the Big Ten, Rutgers is still in search of its first Big Ten Tournament appearance. Before fizzling out, 2018 showed promise and ultimately the Scarlet Knights finished 25-25. There are a handful of three or four-year starters no longer with the program, but as Rutgers continues to recruit better and better, last year saw freshman step into the spotlight and deliver, and more of the same is expected from a highly touted recruiting class. With 15 players having freshman eligibility it will be critical that rookies play behind their age. External expectations are low, but the internal culture is stronger. Now, will potential turn into production and club reaches its first Big Ten Tournament?

Program facts

Head coach: Joe Litterio, sixth season, 120-142-1 at Rutgers.

Last conference championship: 2007 (Big East)

Last NCAA Tournament: 2007 Charlottesville Regional

2018 in review

Record: 25-25 overall, 7-16 in Big Ten; 11th place

At the plate: .270 AVG, .356 OBP, .358 SLG, 66 2B, 15 3B, 18 HR, 82-104 SB-ATT

On the mound: 4.82 ERA, 435.1 IP, 226 BB, 333 SO, .272 BAA

In the field: .969 FLD, 50 double plays, 14 passed balls, 61 SBA, 19 CS

 

Roster rundown

Key losses: 1B Chris Folinusz (.284 AVG/.313 OBP/.398 SLG), OF Jawuan Harris (.246/.375/.387, 22 SB), Eric Heatter (1-2 W-L, 4.40 ERA, 30.2 IP) C Nick Matera (.254/.346/.409, 13 2B) RHP John O’Reilly (5-4, 5.32, 86.1) DH Kyle Walker (.286/.407/.384)

Key returners: Sr. OF Luke Bowerbank (.303/.363/.313), Sr. RHP Serafino Brito (1-2, 3.57, 45.1), Soph. SS Dan DeGeorgio (.277/.338/.362, 17 SB), Jr. RHP Kyle Gerace (1-0, 3.60, 30.0), Soph. OF Mike Nyisztor (.249/.326/.291, 11 SB), Soph. LHP Harry Rutkowski (4-6, 5.34, 64.0), Sr. 3B Carmen Sclafani (.287/.385/.427) Jr. 2B Kevin Welsh (.243/.332/.289)

Key newcomers: 1B Chris Brito, LHP Garrett French, C Peter Serruto, SS David Soto, RHP Victor Valderrama

Composition by class (eligibility-wise): Freshman (15), Sophomores (7), Juniors (9), Seniors (4)

 

What to expect in 2019

Taken as a whole, the 2018 season was a step in the right direction for Rutgers. At 25-25, the Scarlet Knights enjoyed their first non-losing season since 2014, spurred by the team’s ERA was its lowest since 2014’s 30-25 season. The club picked up seven weekend wins, including at a ranked Florida Gulf Coast and took two of three against the defending Big Ten champions, Nebraska. But more importantly, Litterio like the way his new staff came together and worked to change the culture in the program. But a 1-10 finish in conference play saw Rutgers finish with seven Big Ten wins for the third time in four years and miss the conference tournament yet again.

Through the ups and downs, several underclassmen saw significant time and a handful of juniors experienced breakout seasons. Those performances have created a foundation for Rutgers to build around. A highly touted, deep freshman class will see even more young blood immersed throughout the diamond. There are questions marks, but there is potential. The 2019 Rutgers outfit figures to be its deepest yet in the Big Ten. Now, will it be enough to participate in the Big Ten Tournament? That figures to be one of the more interesting storylines to follow in the Big Ten this season.

At the plate and in the field

Around the horn, Rutgers returns three of four starters, though they will be without one returning starter for most, if not all, of the season. Expected to lead the offense, senior third baseman Carmen Scalfani should be an all-conference candidate after a strong 2018, where he collected 12 extra-base hits and carried a .812 OPS. Scalfani will be asked to lead the way on the left side of the infield, as All-Big Ten Freshman Team selection, shortstop Dan DeGeorgio suffered an ACL tear during the first week of fall practices. DeGeorgio brought a strong all-around game to Litterio’s club last year, showing a little pop, a good feel for hitting and a lot of pop. As he recovers, there is a chance he returns during the second-half of the season, freshman David Soto will be called on at short. Soto’s double play partner will be junior Kevin Welsh. For two years Welsh has flashed promise, he has 50 walks and 50 strikeouts in two years, with Litterio and staff having the belief he can have a breakout year, not unlike Scalfani last year. At first base will be the second freshman in the diamond, Chris Brito. Litterio believes Brito, listed at 6’2, 215, has the physicality that’s needed to compete in the Big Ten. This is important as Rutgers’ 18 home runs were last in the Big Ten and the team’s isolated slugging (slugging minus average) of .88, was only better than Michigan State’s .82.

One of the Big Ten’s premier recruits will suit up for Rutgers and set up shop behind the plate. Freshman catcher Peter Serruto heads into the season with high expectations after the Cincinnati Reds selected the Short Hills, N.J. in the 22nd round of last June’s MLB Draft. His father a college baseball player at Virginia, Serruto has been around sports his entire life and Litterio says it’s easy to see with the presence and way he carries himself. Litterio says it’s a lot to ask of a freshman, but Serruto has the arm and defensive ability to control the running game. Able to spill Serruto or help give the Scarlet Knights versatility, senior catcher Tyler McNamara is available. McNamara made 14 starts last year and batted .260 over 50 at-bats.

In the outfield, familiar faces will roam. Though Rutgers must replace the speed and dynamic ability of Jawuan Harris, Kevin Blum, Luke Bowerbank and Mike Nyisztor all return, three outfielders who made a combined 109 starts last year. In limited time, Blum batted .310, Bowerbank struck out only 11 times in 152 at-bats, and as a freshman Nyisztor logged 219 plate appearances.

There is experience in the field and at the plate for Rutgers, as well as some key positions being filled by freshman. There should be enough throughout the lineup to keep opposing staff’s honest, and enough veterans with skill in the field for the defense to not be a liability. Crucial to sustain success will be developing a bit of power. Of Rutgers’ 18 home runs in 2018, only four return, three from Scalfani and one from DeGeorgio. The need to develop power is especially critical as DeGeorgio and Harris combined for 39 stolen bases, their absences figuring to hamper Rutgers’ ability to generate offense through speed.

On the mound

A big hole resides in the Rutgers rotation with the graduation of John O’Reilly. After making 14 starts and logging 86.1 innings, O’Reilly left the Rutgers program ranked second in starts (49), fourth in innings (300.2) and seventh in strikeouts (174). Starting every series opener, O’Reilly was the definition of a workhorse. Where O’Reilly’s production as a starter is lost, the potential of his replacement is near equally high. After shining in a relief role, Rutgers’ go-to closer, senior right-handed pitcher Serafino Brito is making a return to the rotation. Brito logged 45.1 innings over 26 appearances in 2018, pitching to a 3.57 ERA. With 41 strikeouts to 14 walks, Brito recorded five saves and held opponents to a .235 average. All of Brito’s 13 appearances were starts in 2017, as he logged a 4.84 ERA over 74.1. If at worst Brito splits the difference, Rutgers will have a viable Friday starter. Of course Litterio thinks he can do more than just split the difference.

After Brito, sophomore southpaw Harry Rutkowski looks to build off of a promising debut season. Rutkowski was right there with O’Reilly, pitching to a 5.34 ERA whereas the senior held a 5.32 mark. Rutowski was a weekend staple, all 13 of his appearances were starts as he pitched 64 innings. With a bulldog mentality, Rutkowski possesses enough swing-and-miss stuff to take a step forward. Like Serruto, he was a draft pick by the Reds out of high school, tabbed in the 28th round, where much is expected as his career progresses.

For the third spot in the rotation, another reliever is going to be tabbed to start the season stretched out. Junior Tevin Murray, a 6’6 left-handed pitcher from Rington, Penn., will look to carry the momentum started in the summer in the Alaskan League and carried into the fall. With an arm Litterio calls electric, Murray went to the Alaskan League and struck out 46 over 33.2 innings. That followed a spring season for the Scarlet Knights where Murray punched out 21 in 17.2 innings, but also walked 17.

Litterio sees three freshman that can contribute significant innings on the mound in lefty Jared Bellissimo and righties Garrett French and Victor Valderrama, the latter a potential replacement for Brito at the back of the bullpen. The trio of rookies will be able to look upon a few proven veteran relievers as Rutgers has junior right-handers Tommy Genuario and Kyle Gerace back. The two respectively held 3.20 and 3.60 ERAs, and combined to strike out 60 batters in 69.1 innings. Lefty Eric Reardon is another experienced arm capable of coming in during a key situation.

The pitching staff isn’t too different from the position players. There are some unknowns, some players with promise and potential, and players like Brito and Rutkowski you’re confident in that can form a strong foundation. But there are key holes to fill. Does Brito become that ace? Can freshmen be the third and midweek options? Of course last year’s Big Ten champion relied heavily on freshmen to fill out the rotation and at the back of the rotation, so it’s not impossible and that may inspire the Scarlet Knight staff. Litterio believes the depth of quality relievers has doubled from last year, saying “there’s a slew of guys that can help us out,” and feels confident going into the year with this collection of pitchers.

Five things to watch

  • Brito’s ability to go from stopper to ace
  • Rutkowski building off of 2018
  • The team’s ability to hit the longball
  • If Welsh can step up and be a strong two-way play
  • Serruto’s charge at Big Ten Freshman of the Year

 

One the weekend to circle

April 26-28, vs. Michigan. It may seem obvious to pick the weekend against national media’s expected Big Ten favorite and a team ranked in preseason polls, but the series against the Wolverines is big for other less obvious reasons. The series in Ann Arbor will be Rutgers fifth of eight Big Ten series, it figures to be one that shapes the final three and goes a long way in determining if the Scarlet Knights end up in Omaha. It’ll pit them against the team that cemented their 2018 fate, Rutgers grabbed the series opener last year, before falling 9-4 and 6-1 to start an end-of-season seven-game Big Ten losing streak. It’ll pit a team filled with promising freshman, in Rutgers, against a team that has seen significant contributions over the last few years from freshmen, in Michigan. And of course, if Michigan’s season plays out as many expect, it’ll give Rutgers a chance to grab a road victory against a ranked team. That type of result can change the course of a season, a season pretty critical to the growth of the program.

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