This week, the Daily Campus Sports baseball beat writers will be previewing UConn baseball ahead of their season opener on Friday at No. 4 Louisville. The previews begin with a look at this year’s pitching staff, which features some of the best arms in the country.
It’s not easy to replace a guy like Tim Cate, the Huskies’ highly-touted starter from a year ago. A lefty with a mid-90s fastball and a devastating curveball, Cate was drafted in the second round of the MLB draft by the Nationals last June.
Fortunately for UConn, junior Mason Feole has already carved out a spot in the ace role after Cate went down with a shoulder injury last season. Now, heading into his junior season, Feole is considered one of the most feared pitchers in America.
It’s been a busy offseason for the Wakefield, RI product. He has been named to three different preseason All-American lists, including Collegiate Baseball’s First Team All-Americans, as well as the Golden Spikes Award watch list, awarded to the best amateur pitcher in the country. He was also unanimously named the preseason favorite for the American Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year.
“It doesn’t,” Feole said when asked if the offseason attention has come with added pressure to perform. “Like Coach Penders says, ‘Don’t drink the poison.’ Sometimes the poison can be directed to an individual, sometimes the poison is good poison and can be directed towards the entire group. Seeing our name in the national rankings on a few different lists, that fires me up more than any individual award I can receive.”
Feole is the top prospect in the conference, and it’s easy to see why. Last season, he posted a 9-2 record with a 2.50 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 100.2 innings. Those numbers earned him a spot on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team.
“I try to stay clear of the individual stuff,” Feole said. “It’s great stuff for the fans and the program… but that stuff doesn’t matter at the end of the day. If the team wins, and if we win a national title, that’s the stuff that matters to me.”
However, it hasn’t been an entirely positive offseason for the left-hander. Last week, head coach Jim Penders revealed that Feole has been experiencing elbow discomfort in his throwing arm. MRIs revealed no structural damage and Feole has resumed throwing, though he will likely miss a few starts.
“He’s probably in the 75 to 80 percent range, strength-wise,” pitching coach Josh MacDonald said on Tuesday. “We could see him in the next couple weeks, I feel pretty confident as long as there’s no setbacks. We’re just trying to take it easy…to risk it for the first weekend, I didn’t think was right.”
Behind Feole, UConn returns most of its best arms from a season ago. Senior Jeff Kersten and sophomore Colby Dunlop will likely round out the rotation, according to the coaching staff. Kersten recorded a 4.33 ERA in 20 appearances last season, while Dunlop pitched just 34 innings as a freshman but is primed for an expanded role this season.
“Colby Dunlop is really going to be asked to emerge as holding down a weekend spot,” Penders said at the team’s media day on Tuesday. “Sophomore year is a big year, he’s got the stuff for it. He was kind of an enigma at times last year but I think he had his coming-out party in his last appearance against Washington where he pitched fantastic. We’re really going to count on him to expand his role.”
In the bullpen, junior Jake Wallace appears to have a firm grasp on the coveted closer role, filling in for since-graduated P.J. Poulin. Wallace, a hard-throwing righty, struck out 63 in just 43.1 innings of work last season, posting a 3.95 ERA in the process.
“Coming in before P.J., I felt like if I locked down the game, the game was over because no one was touching him,” Wallace said. “So, I have the same mindset of coming in and just throwing strikes, attacking hitters and not giving an inch.”
“[Wallace] found something that clicked last year, and he’s just continued on with it,” MacDonald said. “His stuff is so electric, possibly the most electric I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
Senior Chase Gardner will be a huge component of the UConn bullpen as well. The 6’7 lefthander made 15 starts last season but made the jump to the bullpen this offseason, and figures to be counted on heavily as a middle reliever.
“I’ve learned a lot from Wallace and I’ve talked with P.J. Poulin about their routines,” Gardner said. “It should be an easy transition, I did it earlier in my college career. I feel a lot fresher just going two to four innings a weekend than trying to build myself up [for a start.] If they call upon me to do it at any point this season I’ll be ready too, but for now, I’m enjoying the transition and feeling healthy going into the season.”
And of course, there are more than a few under-the-radar arms who will be relied on, such as redshirt senior C.J. Dandeneau, who’s coming off an up-and-down season but finished strong with an excellent postseason.
“As far as who’s gonna step up [in the absence of Feole], I’m not really sure. But I can tell you that we’re gonna count on guys like C.J. Dandeneau to really carry a load and do whatever’s necessary,” Penders said. “He might be the guy you see in the sixth when the moneys on the table, or you might not see him until the ninth.”
Put it all together, and you’re staring at a pretty intimidating pitching staff for the Huskies. If the team can live up to expectations and make the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time in eight years, it’ll be largely on the shoulders—and arms—of its pitchers.