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Rutgers rolls in dirt to prep for series at Penn State

Senior first baseman Joe D'Annunzio says that capitalizing on scoring opportunities will be crucial for the team's success against the Nittany Lions in the weekend series, May 1-3. – Photo by Luo Zhengchen

The Major League Baseball season began at the beginning of April and still has a way to go for postseason implications to matter for each team. After all, the month of May has just begun.

But for the Rutgers baseball team and the rest of college baseball, most of the conference tournaments start in two weeks and the College World Series begins in early June. Take it for what it is, but time is ticking on the 2015 season.

The Scarlet Knights know exactly where they find themselves in the Big Ten Conference standings, but it’s not what they envisioned at the start of the season.

The Knights currently sit in 10th place in the conference — right on the bubble of making the Big Ten Tournament. With 13 teams in the Big Ten, the conference tourney only accepts the top-eight teams to continue their season.

The good news for Rutgers is they only sit a half game back of the eighth seed with Minnesota and Indiana tied for the spot — two teams that have already played the Knights.

Rutgers edged the Golden Gophers in the series, 2-1, while the Hoosiers swept the Knights, 3-0, back in the beginning of April.

With three conference series left on the season, Rutgers feels they need to win each of them to ensure they will have the chance to make the postseason as the eighth team, but preferably higher.

That climb up the standings starts this weekend against Penn State in University Park, Pennsylvania, where the Knights (15-28-1, 5-10) will play three games.

The biggest challenge for Rutgers is not its opponent, the Nittany Lions (14-26, 2-12). 

Not that Penn State is a team to overlook, but head coach Joe Litterio expressed that he is worried about the prospect of playing on a surface the Knights aren’t used to.

“We had some routine ground balls and routine plays that we misplayed,” Litterio said. “We haven’t been on dirt that much — that was our second game in a row that we did (play on dirt). That’s something that we are going to have to get used to, because Penn State has dirt. We have to be able to do our job in the infield because this is a big weekend for us.”

While five errors were committed by Rutgers' fielders in the last two games played on dirt fields, the issue could be resolved sooner than later. The Knights traveled to Penn State yesterday and practiced last night on the dirt — something not dissimilar to their normal travel routine.

With six-straight games on dirt by the end of this weekend and practices in between, Rutgers will likely get used to the elements of playing on a dirt field rather than the turf they play on at home.

Coming off of a tough 7-2 loss at Villanova on Wednesday, the Knights need to improve on more than just their fielding — offensive production played a big part in the loss to the Wildcats.

In the last two games for Rutgers — both losses — the lineup left 25 runners on base, including 12 against Villanova. 

But that is not what Joe D’Annunzio expects. The senior first baseman believes it’s something to improve on in the series with the Nittany Lions.

“As the stats show, we had more than 10 hits and I don’t know how many people we left on when we should’ve scored them,” D’Annunzio said. “Inning-by-inning, we have a lot of runners on, especially in the early part of the game, and we weren’t able to push them in. We didn’t put pressure on the opposing pitcher or support our guys. When you have a lead as a pitcher, it’s a lot easier to play. We struggled to get that big hit.”

For updates on the Rutgers baseball team, follow @TylerKaralewich and @TargumSports on Twitter.