Junior Andrew Zapata was on the mound for the Huskies as the UConn baseball team had its first home game of the season on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon at J.O. Christian Field.
“This is the classic trap game coming off of an emotional weekend and heading to a long road stretch in California,” said coach Jim Penders. “You have Yale in the way and the temptation to look past them, but that’s the last thing we can do as a team if we want to win.”
The Huskies handled business, though. Zapata threw six scoreless innings as UConn beat Yale 8-2.
Following a series loss to Liberty on the road this past weekend, the Huskies started the day off strong, as Tyler Gnesda batted in two runs on a double to left field in the bottom of the first. UConn would pick up another run later in the inning before moving to the next frame. Gnesda, who finished with three RBIs on the day, was happy to be back at home in Storrs.
“I was just looking for a ball up and staying aggressive,” said Gnesda. “I wasn’t thinking too much about facing new guys every inning, just hit the pitch that they throw at me. And being home helps too, so much better than being on the road where you have people yelling at you.”
After Zapata struck out two in the top of the second for the Huskies, sophomore Willy Yahn drove a single into centerfield to drive in a fourth run for the Huskies before Joe DeRoche-Duffin fouled out down the third base line, leaving a runner stranded on third base to end the inning, which would be Mason Kukowski’s last on the mound for Yale.
Zapata would get a 1-2-3 inning for the top of the third, with help from some excellent defensive plays to keep the Bulldogs off the bases. First, Troy Stefanski made up a lot of ground in left field to get the second out on a deep fly ball by Andrew Herrera. On the very next pitch, Tom O’Neill hit a hard line drive to third. However, Yahn dove and got his glove on the ball, and rifled the ball to Bobby Melley at first base to end the top of the inning.
Richard Slenker nearly started off the fifth inning with a bang for Yale, but Jack Sundberg showed off his speed and defensive prowess making a diving catch on a ball tailing away from him in deep center field.
Zapata would escape a jam later in the fifth inning with runners on first and third before getting a critical third out to end the inning scotch free. Zapata would put in a good six innings of work with a final line of six innings, two hits, no runs, two walks and four strikeouts..
“My first two starts were not as good as I wanted to them to be so I had a little extra edge and motivation for me to do better,” said Zapata. “I just really tried to focus on throwing one pitch at a time, and not thinking too far ahead which helped a lot. I felt like I was in control of the game a lot more. Plus, anytime your team can score and put up runs, it just puts so much pressure off you, especially there in the first.”
Zac Susi led off the bottom of the sixth inning with a single to left field but took a big risk on a bunt attempt by Aaron Hill, getting himself picked off at first. Hill then hit a chopper to third and nearly beat the high throw, but was called out on a questionable call.
UConn would add four more runs in the bottom of the seventh coming off two doubles from Melley and Gnesda, as well as a two-run single from Susi. This gave the team an 8-0 lead and a lot of comfort going into the last two innings.
Susi, a freshman catcher, caught for a number of pitchers on the day especially in the last three innings as the bullpen got some work in relief of Zapata. Devin Over pitched the seventh inning, while Doug Domnarski pitched for one out in the eighth before Nico Darras closed out the inning to preserve the shutout heading into the ninth.
“You catch them a lot in the offseason so you get really comfortable,” said Susi. “It’s very easy since most of the pitchers are very good and [their pitches] are around the zone, making it an easy transition to go from pitcher to pitcher.”
“He [Susi] struggled receiving a little bit today, with a couple balls off the glove,” said Penders. “But you saw the arm, and that covers up some sins when you can throw like that. I’m excited to see him develop. He did a really good job at the plate today (3 for 4, two R.B.I.’s), and he’s going to continue to learn every day.”
The Huskies brought out RHP Randy Polonia to close out the game in the top of the ninth. Although Polonia would lose the shutout for UConn by allowing two runs, he would end the game on a strong note by striking out the last batter after a somewhat tumultuous inning.
Chris Hanna is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.