PISCATAWAY, N.J. (February 8, 2013) – Coming off a 31-25 record in 2012, Rutgers baseball has increased expectations in 2013 with a plethora of experience returning around the diamond. With six position players and two weekend starters back, the Scarlet Knights hope to make waves both in the BIG EAST and nationally.
“We are looking forward to the season and building off of last year,” head coach Fred Hill said. “We did alright in 2012 except for the playoffs and we bring back both hitting and pitching experience this season. Hopefully we can put it all together and have a very successful year.”
Overall, the 34-player roster consists of 22 returners – including three All-BIG EAST performers – and 12 newcomers. There are 11 seniors on the team that bring both experience and leadership to the table.
Hill, who enters his 30th season at Rutgers and 37th as a collegiate head coach, starts the year with 1,061 victories to his record – 13th-most amongst active coaches at the NCAA Division I level. Averaging 31.5 wins per season at RU, the veteran mentor has a 913-628-7 (.592) record with the Scarlet Knights.
Assisting Hill on the staff will once again be Joe Litterio and Tim Reilly, while former RU hurler Casey Gaynor takes over the duties as the pitching coach. Gaynor ranks first in school history in starts (52) and innings pitched (317.0), and is second with 227 strikeouts. Glen Gardner returns for his fifth season as the Director of Baseball Operations and 23rd overall on staff.
Once again, Hill believes that solid pitching and defense are critical to the success of the Scarlet Knights. Adding in a potent offensive attack that finished second in the BIG EAST last year in batting average (.292), slugging percentage (.399) and on-base percentage (.380), Rutgers hopes to combine it all into a BIG EAST title.
“Our expectations are always to win the BIG EAST Conference and to get there you have to get into the playoffs,” Hill said. “Those are our two main goals. We generally attack the season with the mindset to try to win every game. The long-range goals were as I stated. The further you go, the better it is. If you win the BIG EAST, we will go to a NCAA Regional. However, I don’t like to think that far in advance because you might lose sight of the next game. We are going to go one game at a time and do the best we can.”
With the return of seniors Rob Smorol (Clark, N.J.) and Tyler Gebler (Toms River, N.J.) to the weekend rotation, the pitching staff is anticipated to be a team strength. The two both bring two years of weekend starting experience and combined for 177.0 innings last season. Smorol, a left-hander, tied for second in the conference with eight wins to earn All-BIG EAST third-team honors.
There has been tight competition for the third rotation spot, with seniors Rob Corsi (Oceanport, N.J), Charlie Law (Mainland, N.J.) and Nathaniel Roe (Plainfield, N.J.) all in the mix. Corsi started in the Sunday role last season with three wins, including a shutout, in six starts prior to going down with an injury. Roe will also be coming back after missing 2012 following Tommy John surgery. In 2011, he made 11 starts for the Scarlet Knights with 44 strikeouts. Law, who will also see time as a hitter, was used out of the bullpen in a variety of roles last year and is capable of stretching out into a starter.
Out of the bullpen, Hill brings back several arms and will look for contributions from some newcomers. Senior Jerry Elsing (Montville, N.J.) posted a 3.57 earned run average in 17 appearances with a power fastball and could be used as a closer. Used last year as a key middle reliever, junior Charlie Lasky (Freehold, N.J.) has shown the ability to work out of tight jams out of the bullpen. Also look for sophomore Jon Young (Old Bridge, N.J.) and senior Sam Hasty (Brooklyn, N.Y.) to see more innings in that type of role this season.
Senior Pat O’Leary (Sparta, N.J.) and junior Slater McCue (Radnor, Pa.) both have the ability to be used in long relief and as midweek starters. O’Leary made five starts in 2012 with a 2-1 record and 3.68 ERA, while McCue struck out 19 in 17.2 innings.
The program brought in six freshmen pitchers in the recruiting class, including left-hander Howie Brey (Middletown, N.J.) and right-handers Kevin Baxter (Waterford, N.J.), Kyle Driscoll (Toms River, N.J.), Reed Shuttle (Lansdale, Pa.) and Keith Wallace (West Deptford, N.J.). All come in after decorated high school careers.
The Scarlet Knights return three outfielders who had over 100 at bats last year that are ready for the season. Leadoff hitter and centerfielder Brian O’Grady (Warminster, Pa.) was named All-BIG EAST as a sophomore after posting a .308 batting average. In right field, senior Steve Zavala (Randolph, N.J.) was usually seen in the five-hole in the lineup with 53 hits, starting 51 games. Junior Joe D’Annunzio (Scotch Plains, N.J.) and sophomore Vinny Zarrillo (Forked River, N.J.) both saw time in left field in 2012, but D’Annunzio has been ruled out due to injury. Zarrillo had a number of clutch hits as a freshman and should see increased opportunities.
In addition, junior Lou Clemente (Union, N.J.) joins the outfield as another left-handed bat after two successful seasons at Brookdale Community College. As a freshman, he hit .409 with 40 RBIs to earned junior college All-America honors. He could be used a designated hitter.
Three of the four infield spots have returning starters, with juniors Nick Favatella (Washington Township, N.J.) and Pat Sweeney (Sparta, N.J.) holding down the defense up the middle for the third-straight season. Classmate Bill Hoermann (Toms River, N.J.) returns after making 52 starts last season, hitting .275 and playing a solid first base.
Favatella had a breakout sophomore campaign, being the only player to start every game for RU. He hit .333 to go with five home runs as the second baseman and should be a factor at the top of the lineup once again. At shortstop, Sweeney accumulated a .380 on-base percentage.
Rutgers will have to look for ways to account for the production generated last season by BIG EAST Player of the Year and All-American Patrick Kivlehan, but does have several options at third base. Junior Ross Costello (Egg Harbor Township, N.J.) is expected to see time at the position to start the year, as he showed ability in 2012 with a .431 slugging percentage. The right-handed bat was named to the BIG EAST Weekly Honor Roll early on in the year.
Adding depth in the infield are redshirt-freshman John Jennings (Berkeley Heights, N.J.), sophomore John Brucker (Sparta, N.J.) and freshmen Matt Tietz (West Milford, N.J.), Vincent Consenzo (North Caldwell, N.J.), Evan Steidl (Randolph, N.J.) and Corey Lerche (West Nyack, N.Y.).
Senior Jeff Melillo (Annandale, N.J.) earned All-BIG EAST first-team honors last season and is expected to be a major factor both in the middle of the lineup and behind the plate. Named to the Johnny Bench Award watch list, he batted .311 with four homers and 30 RBIs, while catching 19 runners attempting to steal. During the year he had a team-best 19-game hitting streak. Melillo set a New England Collegiate Baseball League record over the summer with an on-base percentage of .548, while also winning the batting title (.404).
Backing up Melillo is expected to be freshman R.J. Devish (Beachwood, N.J.), who is converting to the position after junior Michael Zavala (Randolph, N.J.) went down with a season-ending injury.
Hill, who is known for putting together one of the tougher schedules annually out of the northeast, has put another challenging slate for 2013. The first three weekends will once again feature Miami, Old Dominion and Georgia Tech. Another highlight in the non-conference will be a late-April trip to Nebraska to take part in a weekend event at the site of the College World Series.
“We like to play teams like Miami, Georgia Tech and Old Dominion to start the season to get ready for conference play,” Hill said. “I like the tough competition and it also allows our team to see how class programs are run.”
The BIG EAST schedule will open March 22 at Louisville, who is No. 4 in the Preseason Baseball America poll. Overall, the conference portion features four home and four road series.
“Once again I expect the BIG EAST to be very competitive,” Hill added. “A number of teams are capable of winning it.”
The Scarlet Knights will host a total of 17 games at Bainton Field.