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Rollercoaster ride: Takeaways from Rutgers baseball's thrilling series win over No. 21 Nebraska

Freshman catcher Jackson Natili hit a momentum-shifting home run in the Rutgers baseball team's Sunday victory over Nebraska. – Photo by Christian Sanchez

The Rutgers baseball team earned its first Big Ten series victory by winning 2 of 3 games against Nebraska this weekend at Bainton Field on Livingston campus. The Scarlet Knights (22-13, 3-6) had a rollercoaster weekend but felt more of the thrills against the Cornhuskers (22-10, 6-3).

Here are three takeaways from the weekend.

Highest of highs in gritty Game 1

Both Rutgers and Nebraska were held scoreless for five straight innings to begin Friday's series opener as senior left-handed pitcher Justin Sinibaldi and Brett Sears were locked in a duel on the mound.

It was the Cornhuskers who struck first after a sacrifice fly and a single brought home three runs combined in the top of the sixth. In the bottom half of the frame, freshman infielder Ty Doucette smacked a single to left field that scored two runs in return.

It seemed like the game was over after Will Walsh sent a ball into orbit with his home run, giving No. 21 Nebraska a 6-2 lead after the top of the eighth.

But the Knights would not go down without a fight. After knocking home a run in the eighth inning, Rutgers was able to tie the game in the ninth to stay alive. A two-run double off the bat of junior infielder Josh Kuroda-Grauer made the score 6-5, and a run-scoring single from redshirt sophomore infielder Tony Santa Maria later scored Kuroda-Grauer to even the game.

The game would enter extra innings afterward, and with the game still knotted up at six apiece, graduate student infielder Johnny Volpe left his mark.

Volpe's 11th-inning dribbler squeaked just up the middle and past the shortstop's glove, bringing home Kuroda-Grauer and giving the Knights a 7-6 victory in the first game of the series.

"It was a great feeling, just something you can't even explain, lights flaring everywhere," Volpe said of his walk-off. "Had a shot to do it in, I think, the ninth or 10th, didn't get it done. So, I got another opportunity in the 11th, and it ended up happening, so ball went our way."

To have a late-inning comeback against a top-ranked team in the nation is always commendable, and head coach Steve Owens was pleased with his team's poise on Friday.

"That was a tough grind, to come back and win that game," Owens said. "The guys played very well and got to their bullpen."

Lowest of lows in Saturday crusher

It was a different story on Saturday for Rutgers as it fell to the Cornhuskers 16-1. Nebraska scored five runs off of graduate student right-handed pitcher Jake Marshall in the third inning, tacked on six runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings combined and topped it off with a five-run eighth inning.

The Knights' bullpen was beaten around the bush, allowing 11 runs in six innings of work. Graduate student right-handed pitcher Sonny Fauci surrendered four runs (three earned) in his inning of work, while redshirt junior right-handed pitcher Sam Portnoy gave up five runs in 1.2 innings of relief on the bump.

Ben Columbus shined for the Cornhuskers, with five runs batted in off a two-run ground-rule double in the fifth and a three-run homer in the eighth.

"We got a bad start," Owens said about Saturday afternoon's loss. "You can't use your top relievers when you're losing, and the other guys didn't do a good enough job … We didn't score, so we just got beat in every aspect."

Back on track in Game 3

The bumpy ride smoothened out for Rutgers in the series finale on Sunday.

In the bottom of the third inning, Kuroda-Grauer sent a double down the third base line to cut Nebraska's lead in half to 2-1. The Cornhuskers extended their lead after a solo homer in the fourth, but in the bottom half of the inning, a solo homer from freshman catcher Jackson Natili and a run-scoring single past the second baseman off the bat of Kuroda-Grauer evened the score at 3-3 heading into the fifth inning.

Senior infielder Cameron Love's bases-loaded walk in the bottom half of the fifth gave the Knights their first lead of the game. Two innings later, Volpe connected for his second home run of the season — a shot to left field that gave Rutgers a two-run lead.

"I had a couple of family and friends here today," Volpe said. "Seeing them in left field looking at me when I was running around the bases was definitely an awesome feeling."

After both teams traded a single run, graduate student left-handed pitcher Joey DeChiaro nailed the door shut for his fifth save of the season with a scoreless 1.1 innings to secure the Knights a 6-4 win over their conference foe.

"They're good. That's why they're nationally ranked and at the top of our conference, so that's a good series win for us. It'll get us going," Owens said.

Rutgers will look to snatch another series when it takes on Iowa on the road next weekend, following a Tuesday meeting with Monmouth at Bainton Field.

For more updates on the Rutgers baseball team, follow @TargumSports on X.

To view more of Josh Meyers' work, follow @JoshCMeyers on X.

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