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No. 18 Maryland baseball vs Rutgers preview

Maryland travels to Rutgers for a decisive Big Ten weekend series.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

After completing the season sweep against Georgetown Tuesday afternoon in dominating fashion, No. 18 Maryland baseball will look to continue its winning ways as it heads to New Jersey on Friday for the start of a crucial three-game series against Rutgers that could end up deciding the regular season conference crown.

With their 19-1 victory against Georgetown earlier this week, the 36-9 Terps have now put up double-digit runs in 15 games this season. Maryland’s bats were clicking on all cylinders against the Hoyas, jumping out to a 4-0 lead in the first and later putting the game out of reach in the fourth with an eight-run explosion. The Terps have won eight of their last 10 outings, putting up a whopping 105 total runs in those outings.

On the mound, it was an excellent game by a rotation of pitchers. Nick Robinson took the start, but Noah Mrotek recorded the win in a one-run performance with the help of four other relievers chipping in.

Maryland’s bullpen pitching, despite having one of the best starting rotations in the Big Ten, has been slightly suspect in the waning weeks of the regular season, so it’s an encouraging sign to see head coach Rob Vaughn’s rotation combine for a gem.

With the Terps four wins back of the Scarlet Knights for first place in the conference, this three-game series might just be the most important road trip of Maryland’s season to this point.

All the games can be streamed on BTN Plus from Bainton Field in Piscataway, New Jersey. Friday’s game is scheduled for 2 p.m, Saturday’s at 1 p.m., and Sunday’s game at noon.

Rutgers University (36-10, 15-3 Big Ten Conference)

2021 record: 21-23 (21-23, Big Ten)

Despite being unranked, the Scarlet Knights hold the lead on the Terps for the top record in the conference. Rutgers is having one of its greatest seasons in recent memory, coming off a tumultuous 2021 campaign. The Scarlet Knights are nearing their 40th win of the season, which would be their most in a season since 2007, which was also the last time they clinched a postseason bid.

Rutgers has already qualified for the Big Ten Tournament, but taking at least a game from the Terps would all but secure an NCAA tournament bid for head coach Steve Owens’ crew. The Scarlet Knights are one of the nation’s most dominant offensive teams, ranking third in both hits and runs, so Maryland’s pitching will need to be spectacular in this conference-deciding series.

Hitters to watch

Junior catcher Nick Cimillo — The Manhattan transfer is one of the best all-around players in the Big Ten. Coming from Manhattan — where the redshirt junior was named an All-American, twice selected the MAAC preseason player of the year and nominated for the Johnny Bench award given to the nation’s best catcher — Cimillo has slid perfectly into this Rutgers lineup. He has started in 40 of 46 games behind the plate and is batting just under .400 to go along with a conference-leading .725 slugging percentage.

Sophomore outfielder Ryan Lasko — Lasko is the best hitter in the conference and maybe in the whole country. Before even touching on his stats, let’s note that the New Jersey native won both the Big Ten and National Player of the Week awards last week. That’s his second weekly honor this year, and he was also nominated to the 2021 Freshman All-American team last season. Safe to say, he’s not done adding to his award shelf. He also leads the conference in hits and runs; not to mention he’s top five in home runs with 13. Lasko is the guy the Terps need to try to contain.

Pitchers to Watch

Graduate transfer right-handed pitcher Jared Kollar — The Seton Hall transfer is a veteran who has done nothing but win in his five-year collegiate career. He’s 7-1 on the season so far with an ERA well under 3.00 and has lost just nine starts in his college career. He’s recorded 67 strikeouts through 62 innings pitched this season. He recorded a quality start and a win in Rutgers’ series opener against Ohio State last week. Expect for the vet to close the series this weekend.

Redshirt junior left-handed pitcher Dale Stanavich — The redshirt closer is the Scarlet Knights’ most coveted relief pitcher and recorded his team-leading 10th save of the season during Rutgers’ last win on Sunday. Named to both the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Watch List and Big Ten Baseball Preseason Honors List this season, the southpaw has delivered in clutch times. He’s allowed just five runs in 18 appearances and has been the backbone of one of the nation’s best bullpens. If the Terps want to come out on top in close contests, Stanavich will be the guy they’ll have to crack in the later innings.

Strength

All-around depth. Rutgers has a deep bullpen, with its combined ERA being the lowest in the Big Ten. It has one of the best players in baseball, and its coach, Steve Owens, is one of the leading candidates for Coach of the Year. They are at the top of the conference in almost every statistical category and are just two weeks separated from a ridiculous 15-game winning streak. They are destined to make some noise in June and they’ll be bringing everything they have for this upcoming series.

Weakness

Facing a rough patch. Since their historic winning streak, things haven’t been smooth sailing for the Scarlet Knights. They’re just 5-4 in their previous nine games and have fallen from eighth in the country to unranked. Despite the slip, they still have a sizable lead atop the conference. Even if Maryland takes all three games, Rutgers would still have a one-game advantage in the win column on the Terps in the race for the Big Ten regular season title.

Rutgers might have left behind any glaring weaknesses in 2021, where they failed to reach a .500 record. They’re deep, skilled and loaded with confidence behind a coach with over 20 years of experience in the dugout, despite the recent stretch.

Three things to watch

1. This is the most important series in the Big Ten this season. With fewer than three weeks to go in the regular season, the conference crown is down to a three-team race between Rutgers, Maryland and Illinois. WIth a series win for Rutgers, they’re the clear frontrunners to secure the title in what would be one of the great turnaround stories of the year. If the Terps are able to steal the series — particularly if they can sweep — it will be a wild race to the finish.

2. The Terps need a plan to stop Ryan Lasko. Ryan Ramsey had a perfect game last time he was on the mound, but the Ryan he’ll face this weekend has had his own historic success this season. The slugger has five home runs and 10 RBIs in his last three games. He is the most dangerous player in the conference. Vaughn needs to formulate a plan to stop Lasko and the Scarlet Knight’s otherworldly offense. If Lasko gets hot early, it’s going to be a long weekend for the visiting Terps.

3. Can the Terps keep the bats scorching hot? Rutgers has one of the lowest combined ERAs in the country, but Maryland is top 20 in the nation in home runs and runs scored. Maryland has 64 runs in its past five games, while Rutgers is playing its most inconsistent baseball of the season. If there is a weekend in which the Terps offense can ride their momentum against a stifling Rutgers defense, they will hope that starts Friday afternoon. Only time will tell.