For the first time since 2013, the UConn baseball team is heading to the NCAA tournament.
After heading to Clearwater, Florida this week for the American Athletic Conference tournament as winners of their last nine regular season games, the Huskies stayed hot, winning four of their five tournament games and beating Houston 7-2 in the championship game for the program’s first American Conference title thanks to yet another quality outing from ace Anthony Kay.
Just three days removed from a 101-pitch complete game win Wednesday against Memphis, Kay turned in an 88-pitch performance with five strikeouts and two earned runs for his ninth win of the season. The junior pitcher tied former teammate Carson Cross with his 108th strikeout this season, the fourth-most by a pitcher in a single season in program history.
UConn wasted no time getting on the board, taking a 2-0 lead thanks to a two-run home run from Bobby Melley in the second inning. Meanwhile, Kay cruised through the Cougars lineup, striking out two and surrendering just two hits through the first four innings.
Senior shortstop Bryan Daniello got the offense going in the fourth inning with a single up the middle, and advanced to third with a single by John Toppa to put runners on second and third with one out for Tyler Gnesda. Gnesda was unable to get the suicide squeeze bunt down, causing Daniello to be tagged out at third, but Gnesda redeemed himself with an RBI single to give Kay and the Huskies a 3-0 lead to work with.
Daniello finished the day with three hits in four at bats to cap off a feverous streak at the plate during the tournament. After hitting .259 in the regular season, Daniello hit .590 with 13 hits in 22 at bats in the conference tournament, raising his season average to .291.
After allowing a leadoff double to Houston’s Jacob Campbell in the fifth, Kay induced a ground out and racked up back-to-back strikeouts to keep Houston scoreless through the fifth. The Cougars would finally get to Kay in the sixth with a solo home run from freshman phenom Joe Davis to make it 3-1 UConn through six.
UConn tacked on another run in the top of the seventh after a walk from Jack Sundberg. The senior advanced to third on an errant pickoff attempt and scored on a ground out from Willy Yahn to make it 4-0.
Houston would answer in the bottom half of the inning with two straight hits off Kay to put runners on the corners with no outs. Kay was replaced with reliever Pat Ruotolo, who allowed one inherited Houston runner to score.
The Huskies put the Cougars away with a three-run ninth inning that began with another Gnesda single. Pinch runner Keith Krueger replaced Gnesda on the bases, stole second base and later scored on an RBI single from Sundberg. Yahn followed up with a triple to right-center field for his first hit of the day and would score on a single from Melley to give UConn a 7-2 lead. Ruotolo pitched a clean ninth for the final three outs to clinch the program’s fourth conference tournament championship.
UConn was given a No. 3 seed in the Gainesville regional, hosted by No. 1 overall seed Florida Gators, for the NCAA tournament. The Huskies will take on No. 2 seed Georgia Tech in the opening round. The Yellow Jackets finished the season ranked No. 25 in the nation, with a 36-23 overall record and a 13-16 record in conference play.
UConn and Georgia Tech will play Friday at 1 p.m. in Gainesville, Fla.