In a weekend series that expected runs to be few and far between, the UConn baseball team came through in crucial spots and swept a critical three-game series against No. 25 Houston.
Coming into the weekend, the Cougars (20-15, 3-6 The American) had the best team ERA (2.21), strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.84), walks allowed per nine innings (1.81), and walks/hits per innings pitched (0.97) in the nation.
This weekend, Houston’s pitching staff had a combined 5.63 ERA and walked a total of 12 batters.
“They’re a great ball club, and they’ve had our number in the past. … and to take all three from them is going to be something that you carry momentum over for the next few weeks,” senior Bobby Melley said.
The weekend was full of pitchers’ duels, with the most exciting and anticipated one taking place on Friday’s 3-2 win. Junior Anthony Kay was on the mound for UConn (19-15, 5-3 The American) and, in front of over 15 MLB scouts, tossed 8.1 innings of two-run, six-hit ball.
According to the plethora of radar guns present at the game, Kay was topping out at 95 on his fastball, in addition to near-perfect command of his offspeed and breaking pitches.
Houston starter Andrew Lantrip, considered one of the best pitchers in the nation, lost the duel; he was touched up for three runs on 10 hits over 6.2 IP.
Freshman catcher Zac Susi drove in all three UConn runs and was the Huskies’ lone offensive power. The battery of Susi and Kay was far and away the star of the show.
“Anthony was unbelievable, getting ahead with his fastball, he was great, really had command the whole entire game and really kept hitters off balance with his changeup,” Susi said of Kay. “Once we got him the lead, it was pretty much over.”
In terms of his contributions at the plate, Susi said he simply followed the approach he had been working on all season and was able to poke a ball to the opposite field to drive in the runs.
“We had a lot of intensity coming into it,” Susi said. “We wanted to kick the intensity up and really put it to them first and keep it on them the whole time.”
Saturday’s game was a battle of southpaws; freshman Tim Cate took the mound for the Huskies going up against Houston’s Seth Romero, who entered the game with a 1.65 ERA over six starts.
Cate was shaky to start the game, giving up a leadoff single and eventually the game’s first run via a wild pitch, his second of the inning.
That run was the only one he gave up all game.
UConn, who had scored less than four runs in their last six out of seven games, wasn’t expecting to put up more than two or three runs against Romero. Taking into account the strength of the opposing pitcher, they batted with a patient approach, waiting for their pitch to hit and challenging Houston’s pitchers to come after them.
Perhaps their most crucial trait was their ability to take advantage of walks, as they drew six of them against Romero. Knowing that Houston’s staff does not walk batters very often, they made them pay.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, with the game knotted at one thanks to an RBI from catcher Alex LeFevre in the second inning, senior Bobby Melley drew a leadoff walk. The next batter, Joe DeRoche-Duffin, smacked his seventh long ball of the year that put the Huskies ahead 3-1.
They won the game by a score of 4-1.
“He hit the heck out of it. It was good to see that ball get out, it gave us a little breathing room for Timmy to kind of settle in,” head coach Jim Penders said. “Cate was sensational.”
Cate had a career game, going 7.0 IP while only letting up three hits and one run while recording six strikeouts.
For a freshman coming in against an experienced Houston team, his biggest weapon was the simple fact that the Cougars had no idea of what he was capable of.
“He’s got that good breaking ball, and he’s got a feel for a changeup too, so it’s not like he can just sit on one of two pitches, he’s got three that he can throw up there, he’s got a lot of confidence, so hopefully that continues,” Penders said.
Coming into the third game, the Huskies had nothing but confidence and momentum, and they were riding high on it.
UConn wasted no time to get on the board against Houston’s Mitch Ullom, who had only issued three walks all season prior to Sunday’s start. Senior Jack Sundberg and sophomore Willy Yahn opened the game with back-to-back walks and, following a Melley strikeout, DeRoche-Duffin obliterated a three-run home run to the opposite field, giving his team an early 3-0 lead.
It was his eighth home run of the year, which leads the team.
UConn starter Wills Montgomerie gave Houston no room to breathe. He let up only two hits and no runs through 5.1 IP and struck out seven.
The Huskies stretched Ullom for four walks in 4.1 innings, in addition to four hits and six runs. He was replaced by John King in the bottom of the fifth, who only faced one batter: Bobby Melley.
With the bases loaded and one out, Melley smacked a double to get his 32nd and 33rd RBIs, which leads the team. He gave the Huskies a 5-0 lead.
That wouldn’t be all for Melley. After the Huskies scored two more runs in the fifth to extend their lead to 7-0, Melley came to the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning hungry for more.
He smacked his sixth home run over the season over the bushes in right field; the ball went so far that it landed on the softball field. His solo shot extended UConn’s lead to 8-0.
“I’ve been more locked in, I’ve been feeling good,” Melley said. “The weather’s starting to warm up, that helps too. It was a beautiful weekend here, and it’s just great to be out playing ball and having some fun.”
The Huskies would add one more run via a Yahn RBI single, and the Cougars would tack on two before redshirt senior Devin Over came in and recorded the final three outs. The final score was 9-2.
UConn capped off the series sweep in emphatic fashion and, in the eyes and minds of the players, there certainly won’t be any shortage of energy going forward.
“If we play like we did this weekend, all three games, we should be able to beat anyone in this conference,” Melley said. “We’re looking forward to [the coming weeks], you know, we’re hungry, and we just want to keep fighting.”