Baseball: UConn and Houston set for conference showdown in Hartford

 (Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

(Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

It seems like every year that UConn has been in the American, the road to the top of the conference has run through Houston, and this year is no different. Going into this weekend No. 18 UConn is 1.5 games back of the Cougars, and could own sole possession of first place with a sweep.

UConn baseball’s biggest series of the year will take place on their biggest stage of the year, when they play the Cougars in Dunkin Donuts Park this weekend.

UConn is tied with No. 10 East Carolina and No. 24 South Florida for second in the AAC with an 11-7 conference record, all 1.5 games back of Houston who sits at 14-7, as they haven’t yet had their conference play bye week.

Fresh off an exciting weekday victory over Northeastern where UConn recorded six runs on 13 hits, the Huskies will look to keep their red-hot offense rolling against Houston.

UConn’s lineup is a nightmare for opposing pitchers: the first six batters are all batting over .290, and center fielder Troy Stefanski leads the way, batting .318 on the year with 55 hits and 27 RBI.

Catcher Zac Susi and shortstop Anthony Prato are right on Stefanski’s heels, batting .316 and .312 respectively. Susi leads the team in on-base percentage (.399), and Prato leads the team with 58 hits.

Right fielder Isaac Feldstein has been on an absolute tear in the cleanup spot of the lineup since conference play began. The senior transfer has hit 12 home runs, the most in the American, owns the highest slugging percentage on the team (.606, fifth in the American) and has smashed more extra-base hits than singles on the year.

UConn’s pitching staff has held up their end of the game as well, especially as they’ve been without ace and expected high-round MLB draft pick Tim Cate for five weeks due to forearm tightness.

Mason Feole has slid into the role of Friday starter with ease however, with a 7-1 record and a 2.44 ERA, Feole allows opponents just a .214 batting average against him, ranking sixth in the conference in both categories.

UConn’s bullpen has stepped up in a big way as well, as everyone had to move up a spot in the hierarchy after Cate went down. Jake Wallace and PJ Poulin have been an impressive one-two punch to close out games for the Huskies, with 3.57 and 3.74 ERAs respectively.

Wallace allows opponents to hit just .219 off of him, and Poulin leads the conference with 13, four more than the next highest closer.

UConn’s opponent this weekend, Houston, had a relatively slow start to the season, but the Cougars have caught fire in the middle of the season.

Houston was ranked 173rd in RPI just five weeks ago, but have risen to 62nd as of Thursday by virtue of series sweeps of AAC contenders Wichita State and ECU. Houston’s last conference series wasn’t quite as successful, as they dropped two out of three to UCF.

Houston is a well rounded team, stronger on the defensive side of the ball than the offensive side. The Cougars rank seventh in the American in batting average, fourth in ERA, second in opponents batting average and second in fielding percentage.

Like the Huskies, Houston’s Saturday starter has stepped into a much bigger role this season. Lefty Aaron Fletcher boasts a 1.77 ERA, the best in the conference. Houston’s ace Trey Cumbie has been no slouch either, giving up just a .205 batting average to opposing hitters, the second best mark in the conference.

Houston’s best hitter so far has been third baseman Jared Triolo, who leads the Cougars in hits (68), batting average (.354, fourth in the America), and slugging percentage (.469).

Houston is led by skipper Todd Whitting, in his eighth year coaching the Cougars, who have won either the American regular season title or conference tournament all but one year in the conference.

The Huskies will play in a doubleheader at Dunkin Donuts Park on Friday, with games at 3 and approximately 7 p.m. The final game of the series will take place at 11 a.m. back in Storrs at J.O. Christian Field.


Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at luke.swanson@uconn.edu.