PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Feb. 11, 2013) – After earning a spot in the BIG EAST semifinals last season, Rutgers baseball looks to continue its tradition of success as a member of the American Athletic Conference in 2014. A new-look roster features 19 newcomers to go with 14 returning letterwinners.
With veteran head coach Fred Hill on a leave of absence since the fall, acting head coach Joe Litterio will lead the way for the Scarlet Knights until further notice. An alumnus of the program, Litterio is in his third season back on staff at RU after spending 12 years as the head coach at Wagner.
“We have been having some quality practices leading up to our first weekend, as everything is coming together,” Litterio said. “It is all about learning the system this time of the year to prepare for the season. We may have some inexperience on the roster, but we are not lacking talented players. I look forward to getting started.”
Enduring the loss of 15 letterwinners, including eight starters, the Scarlet Knights were picked seventh in the Preseason American Athletic Conference Baseball Coaches’ Poll. RU projects to put out an offense with the ability to mix power and speed, looking for the pitching staff to step up to win games.
“I believe this is more of an offensive team that will put up runs,” Litterio said. “I think that with the experience we have in the field, we’ll also take that to the plate, being able to swing it and steal some bases. However, with any team, you need solid pitching to win games. We are going to need some guys to perform on the mound this season.”
Due the cold weather the Scarlet Knights have been practicing in the Bubble to prepare for the upcoming season. The air-supported facility features a full-length turf football field to give the team space to throw and work defensively. The batting cages inside the Rutgers Athletic Center are used to take swings and perform hitting drills.
“With the weather the way it is, the Bubble provides us an opportunity to work on everything we need to work on inside,” Litterio said.
After graduating 100 percent of the weekend starting pitching from last season, the Scarlet Knights are tasked with replacing the entire rotation. The team returns five pitchers who saw action last season.
“There is inexperience in the pitching staff, but that will lead to competition the first few weeks of the season,” Litterio said. “I expect everyone to compete, with the coaches working to figure out who is best for which role. I believe we have some quality arms and look forward to seeing who will step up.”
Sophomore Howie Brey (Middletown, N.J.) will begin as the Friday starter after leading the team with 24 relief appearances as a freshman. The left-hander had an ERA of 3.44 in 34.0 innings, collecting 26 strikeouts. Junior Jon Young (Old Bridge, N.J.) slots next, making three midweek starts last season. His campaign was highlighted by a victory against Delaware in a 6.2-inning performance to win his first career start. Redshirt freshmen Kyle Driscoll (Toms River, N.J.) and Kevin Baxter (Waterford, N.J.) are expected to compete for the final spot in the rotation after sitting out all of last season. Both bring size to the mound and had successful high school careers.
Seniors Slater McCue (Radnor, Pa.) and Charlie Lasky (Freehold, N.J.) are the veterans of the staff and bring experience and leadership to the unit. Also expected to play key roles out of the bullpen are sophomore Reed Shuttle (Lansdale, Pa.), who made seven appearances last year, and redshirt freshman transfer Max Herrmann (Rutherford, N.J.). Freshmen Ryan Fleming (Churchville, Pa.) and Fernando Rosa (Perth Amboy, N.J.) have additionally showed the ability to compete right away on the mound in their first seasons of eligibility at the collegiate level.
Three seniors anchor the infield in what is expected to be a team strength. Nick Favatella (Washington Township, N.J.) returns to his second base position, having started the last 145 games dating back to his freshman season. He hit .379 in conference games to earn Second Team All-BIG EAST honors in 2013. After enduring injuries last season, Pat Sweeney (Sparta, N.J.) returns at shortstop with 123 career starts under his belt. Due to the depth in the outfield, Brian O’Grady (Warminster, Pa.) has made the move to first base. A stalwart in the lineup in his first three seasons, he earned BIG EAST All-Tournament Team status after hitting .500 in the event to help RU reach the semifinals.
“We have a lot of leadership and experience in the infield this season,” Litterio said. “Nick, Pat and Brian are very familiar with the expectations we have in this program and will show the younger players the way.”
Over at third base, sophomore R.J. Devish (Beachwood, N.J.) has been in a battle with freshman Christian Campbell (Sayreville, N.J.) for the starting job. Both are versatile players, as Devish can also catch with Campbell having the ability to slide to shortstop if needed.
Winning the BIG EAST batting title with a .407 average in league games last season, junior Vinny Zarrillo (Forked River, N.J.) was named Preseason All-American Athletic Conference in a vote of the league’s head coaches. He went 5-for-7 in the opening series last season and continued the momentum the rest of the way to establish himself as a threat in the middle of the order.
“Vinny had a great season last season, but he still has more room to grow,” Litterio said. “I think he has come back in better shape and he’s swinging the bat even better than he did last year. I know it’s tough to do average wise, but I believe he is going to put up more doubles and hit for more power this year.”
Also expected to see early action in the outfield are freshmen Mike Carter (Bloomfield, N.J.) and Tom Marcinczyk (Middlesex, N.J.). Both arrived at Rutgers after being four-year starters at the high school level, each holding the school hits record. Junior Joe D’Annunzio (Scotch Plains, N.J.) and senior Lou Clemente (Union, N.J.) additionally provide depth to the group and could earn plate appearances at designated hitter.
Junior Michael Zavala (Randolph, N.J.) returns to the team after missing the 2013 season due to injury. Serving as the backup in 2011 and 2012, he made 46 starts between catcher and designated hitter. He will be tasked with guiding a young pitching staff.
“Michael has been swinging the bat well, but he has also improved his defense,” Litterio said. “I want him to be able to step up and run the team this year. I believe from the catching spot you need a guy that can take charge of a team from on the field and be that captain on the field and I’m hoping he can do that.”
Devish will serve as the backup, having 16 games of experience. The sophomore made his debut at the position in the series-opening victory at No. 4 Louisville last year.
The Scarlet Knights have traditionally put together one of the toughest schedules nationally and 2014 is no different. On the road for the first seven weekends of the season, RU will play six opponents that made the 2013 NCAA Tournament (12 games), including two away series versus teams that advanced to at least the Super Regionals (Oklahoma, Louisville).
“I am very happy with the way our 2014 schedule shaped up,” Litterio said. “We kept with the same philosophy as in the past, looking to play quality opponents early in the season to prepare for the conference season. While the league is a bit different from the past, the competition will be just as challenging.”
Rutgers will host 23 games at Bainton Field this year, starting with a March 5 contest against rival Seton Hall.