Today’s college baseball quiz.
What team has the nation’s longest winning streak, with its last defeat nearly a month ago?
What do-everything bunch is the only roster currently in the top 10 in the nation in batting average, earned run average and fielding percentage?
What program has never finished higher than eighth in its current conference, but at this moment is leading the league?
Whose lineup includes a former walk-on pursuing a civil engineering degree, a graduate student pitching his first season in Division I and hasn’t lost yet, a closer who is one of 10 kids in his family? All led by a baseball coach who, besides owning 21 seasons of 30-plus wins at four different schools, scored 18 touchdowns as a college running back?
Say hello to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
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Who saw these guys coming? Rutgers hasn’t had a winning record since 2014 or been seen in the NCAA tournament in 14 years. The Scarlet Knights’ one College World Series trip was 1950. They have never qualified for the Big Ten tournament, though they would have last season if there had been one, with a 21-23 record on a schedule of all conference games. But here they are now, 30-6 overall, 11-1 in the Big Ten with three series sweeps, and winners of 15 in a row going into midweek games with Iona and Princeton.
“I thought we were going to be a pretty athletic position player group that could hit a little bit and obviously could field it.” Coach Steve Owens was saying this week. “I didn’t see everything coming together like it has so far.
“But I do have to give our players credit because they’ve really done a lot of things well for a long stretch and it’s hard to do that. I don’t care what level of baseball you’re talking, it’s hard to be good every day. They’ve just really showed up. They show up to play every day.”
And hit. And pitch. And field.
Last check, Rutgers was fourth in the nation with a .321 team batting average, fourth with a 3.07 earned run average and 10th in fielding percentage. The Scarlet Knights are hitting 22 points higher than any other team in the Big Ten, and lead the league in 15 different categories, from on-base percentage to runs to ERA to fielding percentage to slugging to shutouts. Seven Rutgers hitters are above .300 and nine have driven in at least 23 runs.
There's only one team in the entire country that ranks Top 10 in:— Rutgers Baseball (@RutgersBaseball) April 18, 2022
Batting Average (.321)
Earned Run Average (3.07)
Fielding Percentage (.981)
It's us. The 30-6 Scarlet Knights.#TCD /// #GoRU pic.twitter.com/W8i8i1wQge
“There’s a lot of unselfishness with the players, the lineups have been different almost every single day, based on feel, and who’s hot and who we’re facing,” Owens said. “The guys don’t care if they’re hitting second or they’re hitting seventh. A lot of things have gone into the formula.
“Baseball’s a game where you have stretches where you’re awesome and there’s stretches where things don’t go your way. We’ve kind of shared those a little bit. That’s a great feeling because everyone’s contributing.”
They have won games big – 19-1 at Nebraska, 20-6 at Penn State, 17-1 over Saint Peter’s, 21-3 over Richmond, 23-3 over Lafayette – and won them small. Take Easter against Indiana. Rutgers was down 8-3 in the fifth and still behind 9-8 in the ninth. But then . . . Tony Santa Maria homer to tie, Jordan Sweeney walk-off homer to win, the blows coming from the sixth and eighth spots in the lineup. “The game’s not over until they get 27 outs and have more runs than us,” Sweeney said that day, “and I think that’s really hard to do for a lot of (opponents).”
Leading the surge with .404 average is catcher Nick Cimillo, a transfer from Manhattan. Chris Brito is currently the top RBI man with 43, and often bats sixth. Right behind with 42 is third baseman Santa Maria, who used to play hockey. Then there’s shortstop Danny DiGeorgio, with his .366 average and 34 RBI and long road traveled. He came to Rutgers to study civil engineering, went out for baseball as a sophomore and won a starting spot, lost the next season to a knee injury, had an abbreviated 2020 with COVID restrictions, spent 2021 playing nothing but Big Ten games because of the pandemic, and finally has something of a routine year for his last.
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“I have seen just about as much as any college baseball player has seen,” he recently told NJ.com. “But I really wouldn’t change anything because this is a really special season.”
The new Friday starter is Jared Kollar, who is 6-0 in his first D-I season, having spent four years with Seton Hill. Dale Stanavich is the reliever with eight saves, and 0.93 ERA and 33-4 strikeout-walk ratio. He also has nine siblings.
And if the pitchers do get hit, the fielders standing behind them often can minimize the damage. In 36 games, only 25 errors. “Hitting means a lot to us,” outfielder Evan Sleight said. “But if you can’t tell, defense means just as much.”
Such multi-tasking makes pleasant working conditions for the coach.
“It’s a nice mix of new players and older players and it’s really been a joy to be around,” Owens said. “The one thing is, we’re winning games this year in the same fashion we lost games last year. We did some good stuff last year and I think we did better than people thought we could do. But we lost a lot of games we had a chance to win, and it seems like we’ve just been able to be on the right side of it a little bit more so far.”
This renaissance is being staged in Piscataway, New Jersey, where they have winter. Lots of it. Rutgers did as all northern teams must; spent most of the early season on the road – 21 of the first 22 games were away from home -- trying to find its way against teams who have seen sunshine all off-season. “You get used to it,” Owens said. “I’ve been in the Northeast my whole life so I really don’t know anything else, and our players don’t know anything else so we just play.”
Now they’re trying to take Rutgers baseball to places it hasn’t seen in eons. At the front of the pack in his third season is Owens, who once upon a time was a .349 career hitter for St. Lawrence University in the spring and the football team’s leading rusher in the fall. He briefly dabbled as a coach in both sports but his career trajectory took him to baseball – where he won big at Cortland State, Le Moyne and Bryant -- and eventually to Rutgers.
He has seen the inside of 13 NCAA tournaments in Divisions I and III. His players haven’t. To get there “would mean everything,” he said. “We haven’t talked about a win streak, we haven’t talked about anything. We’re just talking about going to work every day and doing the best we can. We’re keeping it really simple, and that’s the way they like to do it.”
Now they’re 30-6. For Owens, it’s a long way from running sweeps at St. Lawrence.
“My wife says that I picked the wrong sport, that if I was coaching football, I would have made a lot more money,” he said. “She’s probably right. But I don’t think I made the wrong choice.”