In a little under two weeks, the UConn baseball team will kick off their 2017 season against UMass-Lowell down in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Even with seven seniors already departed, head coach Jim Penders and his young squad are excited to play a new brand of baseball they hope will put them above the rest.
“We’re practicing something every day that we call ‘S.A.K.O’, a.k.a. Swiss army knife offense. We have to be more like a Swiss army knife; some days, we’re going to have to be able to bunt guys over, we’re going to have to be able to steal,” Penders said. “We’re going to have be multi-faceted as an offense. I can’t be like Earl Weaver this year and sit back and wait for the three-run homer.”
Penders is not exaggerating. Last year, only two seniors broke double-digits in home runs, and three of the four players who hit at least 15 doubles have graduated. With power no longer at the core of their offensive philosophy, the Huskies are preparing to rely on small ball to produce runs.
Co-captain Willy Yahn, who lead the team last season with 20 doubles and will certainly be moving into the leadoff spot, will be the poster child for the new offensive strategy. Yahn, who was an All-Star over the summer in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League, hit .290 from the leadoff spot for the Bourne Braves, collecting 51 hits, tied for most on the team.
More than anything, Yahn hopes that the skills he learned over the summer will translate into his new role as a leader as he shifts his focus from himself to the team. With a promising freshman class being a big part of the equation, sometimes the hardest thing is getting used to the packed schedule, Yahn said.
“[It’s important to] come in with the right mindset every single day with a willingness to learn and get better, no matter how you’re feeling; if it’s a good day, bad day, you’re in a little bit of a slump, you gotta get a routine, stick to that routine and just trust the process,” Yahn said.
The departure of Bobby Melley and Bryan Daniello leave two big spots to fill in the infield, and the team is relying on the freshmen to fill in some big shoes. Penders is willing to go to senior Tyler Gnesda at first base, but sung high praises for freshman Chris Winkel, whose staunch athleticism makes him a candidate for both the outfield and the infield, though Penders has been giving him the majority of his reps in center field.
With redshirt freshman Jack Lambrecht out for about six weeks, however, Penders wants to see what Winkel can do at first. As for shortstop, two freshmen—Anthony Prato and Connor Moriarty—have the inside track for the starting spot.
“Both those guys could play three infield positions, but Anthony’s probably got a little bit of a leg-up on Connor right now,” Penders said.
As for the outfield, the choice is much more open. Sophomore John Toppa, who has been recovering from an injury, is the prime candidate to return to left field, as Penders said his bat is pretty much solidified in the middle of the lineup. Junior Troy Stefanski, Winkel and especially newcomer Isaac Feldstein out of California have all caught Penders’s eye.
“Isaac is a guy who does have real power,” Penders said. “He’s been giving us really good at-bats and he’s got some real juice in the bat. He’s a guy that I’d like to give the reigns to and see how far he can take it. He’s a guy that I think has gotta be in our lineup.”
The most noticeable absence from the UConn roster is Anthony Kay, the hard-throwing southpaw who departed the team last season as a junior and was drafted in the first round by the New York Mets. While Penders thinks it’s impossible to adequately fill his shoes, Tim Cate is coming off a summer where he played for the Team USA Collegiate National Team after being named a freshman All-American.
“I think the best thing I learned over there was that I wasn’t comfortable in the setting that I was in,” Cate said. “Just learning to pitch when you’re not fully comfortable I guess, that’s probably the main thing I got out of it.”
As a sophomore on a young team, Cate is in the unique position of being a leader with only one year of collegiate experience. The most important thing, Cate said, is leading by example and helping other freshman pitchers go through what he did last year.
His expected battery-mate, Zac Susi, a sophomore who stole the starting catcher’s spot but fizzled out at the end of the NCAA Tournament last season, focused primarily on building up his muscle and his longevity in the offseason. With the tall task of working with and developing the young rotation, Susi knows his role has dramatically shifted.
“Last year, I got away with being a little quiet, being the freshman back there,” Susi said. “You know, this year, being one of the few returners from the lineup, I think I have a responsibility to help the younger guys out, and just being more confident behind the plate; have the pitchers trust me and I trust them.”
Uncertainty shrouds any young team, especially one that relied so heavily on its seniors just a year before. But if there’s one thing co-captain Aaron Hill knows, it’s that the work ethic and the skillset of the class of 2020 will give UConn a kind of unique dynamism whose impression should be felt beyond Storrs.
“The whole freshman class I’m just impressed with. You know, they work so hard every day. You can always find them in the barn working hard, staying after practice getting ground balls, lifting up good weight,” Hill said. “They just go after it; they know how to work hard every day, and that’s what we need. They’re just out here working and I love it.”