Baseball: Penders aims to emphasize the right mentality

The UConn baseball team celebrates during a game last season at J.O. Christian Field. The Huskies have won four games in a row after dropping their opening two games in walk off fashion. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

Baseball, they say, is a thinking man’s game. It’s “90 percent mental, and the other half is physical,” according to the legendary Yogi Berra.

This season, UConn baseball started off by suffering back-to-back walk-off losses. It’s easy to get down on yourself when you lose in such heartbreaking fashion, but the team did anything but back down. They scored five runs in the eighth inning of their next game to complete a comeback win.

Simply put, they kept their heads in the game and did not quit.

Now, the team is coming off a loaded historical weekend: they played three teams for the first time in their 120-year history, and scored a combined 56 runs against them — the most in a three game stretch since 1994.

This is all a combined product of Bobby Melley’s breakout start, Tyler Gnesda’s conference player of the week performance and Anthony Kay’s stellar pitching, among others.

UConn has traditionally gotten off to slow starts in recent years — since 2010, they have only won their first game of the season once. But they’ve never quite experienced a pick-me-up like this; something head coach Jim Penders heavily attributes to phenomenal in-game concentration.

“It’s not like they changed any swings, but their approach in the batter’s box was outstanding,” Penders said.

Yes, being physically strong is a key component to baseball, but the game has so often been heralded because of its unique mental component. In baseball, overthinking is a bigger basis for failure than any physical attribute.

Penders is a smart coach. He certainly knows that there is a balance between focusing on the mental aspect and the physical aspect.

He just thinks that being the bigger teammate is more important than having the bigger muscles.

Especially so early in the season with so many bright freshman and sophomores, the focus for Penders has been keeping his team’s mental focus sharp. Rather than obsessing over hours of stats and video, Penders keeps the focus on the guys themselves.

It’s like the baseball version of self-care.

While Penders does look at team video later in the season with a bigger sample size, it doesn’t take away the fact that his main focus is always on playing the game he knows his players are capable of, instead of adjusting it to fit the model of the opponent’s.

“We’re looking more at what we can do as a team as opposed to what the opponent can do,” Pender said. “We’re more focused on ourselves and our preparation than on any scouting.”

This model may be what’s contributing to the early success of Melley. In previous seasons, Melley has traditionally gotten off to a slow start.

Now, Melley is leading the team in all major categories with a .478 batting average, .696 slugging percentage, .613 on base percentage, 11 hits and 11 runs. His 11 RBIs only trail Gnesda, who has 13.

Penders is pleased to see that Melley seems to have finally found himself.

“He’s not taking too many swings,” Penders said. “He’s always been an extremely confident hitter, and it’s nice to see him get off to a start that’s more emblematic of the way that he’s played over the past three years.”

This model is also the reason why freshman like Zac Susi and John Toppa are going to get frequent starts. Giving young players the benefit of the doubt early on and giving them a chance to show what they can do is central to confidence building and prolonged success.

Over the weekend, Toppa made two starts in left field and Susi made two starts at catcher. In the games they didn’t start, both players recorded at-bats as a pinch hitter later in the game.

Toppa collected four RBIs, three walks, three runs and two hits over the weekend, while Susi recorded two RBIs, one walk, one run and three hits. Both of them batted at the bottom of the lineup.

Though Penders believes that Susi’s ceiling is higher than that of junior catcher Alex LeFevre, he gives LeFevre credit for helping Zac develop tremendously.

It’s this team comradery that Penders perhaps is most pleased by. Though he can only speak from a coach’s perspective, he has noticed something different in the team than in previous years.

“I really enjoy seeing every guy in our dugout and our uniform every day… and I haven’t been able to say that every season,” Penders said.

It all circles back to the mental aspect. Penders will set lineups, rotations and travel lists for the weekend, and notes how guys may not see their name there, but he does not see them act discouraged.

He grooms players to lead by example, and by doing that, his team becomes mentally stronger, physically stronger, more determined and more willing to help one another.

For Penders, if the team can focus on themselves before they prepare for the opponent, and they can focus on helping each other in the process rather than playing selfishly, then he believes he’s got a special group of guys on his hands.

“If I can say that I can enjoy seeing all 35 of them in June, then you know we have something really special,” Penders said. 


Stephanie Sheehan is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.sheehan@uconn.edu. She tweets @steph_sheehan.