Bookended by two stellar veteran performances, the Huskies escape Houston with their first road series win over the Cougars to date, closing out an 11-day, eight-game road trip with a 6-2 record.
At the start 2019 conference play, UConn sent the best it had to offer, Mason Feole, to open the series Friday night. The junior lefty validated his preseason All-American selection with a season-high eight strikeouts, allowing just one unearned run on three hits in the win.
“It just felt [good] to be out there on a Friday night again, and compete against a team that we’ve fought with in the past,” Feole said. “... We just battled tonight. The end of the story. It just was nice to kinda lead the charge a bit and get us going.”
Feole did more than just lead the way. Between the third and sixth innings, the Huskies ace retired 10-straight Cougar batters on his way to his 17th career victory, the-ninth most in UConn history.
“You gotta tip your hat to Lockhart, and Feole did a great job,” head coach Jim Penders said.
The soft-throwing Lael Lockhart Jr. puzzled the Huskies (13-8, 2-1 The American) with plenty of off-speed and breaking balls through just over seven innings of work. He let up just two runs on four hits with five punch-outs in the loss as one Husky had his number.
Christian Fedko was responsible for two UConn runs in his fifth multi-hit game of the season, going 2-for-4. After knocking in John Toppa on a RBI double, the second-year infielder scored when Cole Brodnansky line one up the middle the following at-bat.
A misplayed ball by Toppa followed an errant throw from first baseman Chris Winkel (both team captains) later in the inning had Houston (11-11, 1-2 The American) knocking on the door in the seventh. Though they would get one, Conor Moriarty made sure they did not get a two. The third baseman played the Cougars’ sacrifice squeeze perfectly, nailing the game-tying run at the plate.
“That’s UConn Huskies baseball,” Feole said about the seventh inning. “We’re gonna complete and when stuff seems to unwind a bit, we’re gonna find a way to get back on the horse and get through it ... I just thought we fought. We fought through that inning. That inning kinda set the tone for the rest of the game.”
Jake Wallace entered in the eighth, shutting the door on Houston’s cleanup man, Joe Davis with a strikeout. A strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out double play ended the night.
“It was an inning from hell.”
That was the only way Penders could describe the insurmountable fourth-inning meltdown by his team.
A single, a walk and another single loaded the bases before starting pitcher Jeff Kersten struck out the fourth man he faced in the inning. Having already escaped a second inning bases-loaded situation, Kersten could not do it again in the fourth. Another free pass to first, followed by a single cut the UConn lead to just one before a bases-clearing double gave the Houston the lead for good in UConn’s 5-4 loss.
“They’ve got really good team speed as a whole and we gotta play faster,” Penders said. “Our bats looked slow tonight too.”
The Huskies managed to score three times before one Cougar could cross the plate. A Toppa RBI single got UConn on the board. A pair of ground outs from Chris Winkel and Kyler Fedko provided the Huskies with a three-run lead early before unraveling in the fourth.
A bright spot on the day came from the bullpen. Picking up from an impressive series against Michigan State a week ago, Randy Polonia, Chase Gardner, Joe Simeone and Caleb Wurster collaborated for almost four innings of shutout relief (3.2), keeping the team within striking distance late in the game.
“Randy and after, very good,” Penders said about his group of relievers. “Those guys all did their jobs.”
The Huskies would not go out quietly. Thad Phillips singled to left to start the fifth, and would later score on a Mike Woodworth single, but would be the last run to cross the plate, for either side, Saturday night.
The kid from Cali was feeling it Sunday afternoon, when centerfielder Mike Woodworth went 4-for-5 with two home runs in UConn’s 9-3 win. He’s the first Husky to record four hits in a game this year, and the first with a multi-home run game since Joe Deroche-Duffin did it twice in 2016.
“I missed a couple pitches early, fouled them back. I was not too happy with myself,” Woodworth said on his plate approach in the seventh. “They started to go away soft. I was fouling them off. I decided I was gonna sit back a bit, got a changeup in and I hit it good enough to get out. It felt pretty good.”
Woodworth hit four home runs all of last season. After his two solo shots Saturday, he has already matched his previous season total of four.
The late-game long ball came at the tail-end of the UConn scoring. Though another run would cross that inning — and another in the following frame — the majority of the Huskies’ runs came in the third.
Already tied at one thanks to a Toppa RBI single in the first, Anthony Prato was the first to cross the plate in the third after Christian Fedko hammered a double down the left field line. Houston could not handle ground balls off the bats of Cole Brodnansky and Thad Phillips, letting two more Huskies make their way around the base paths.
Then, big brother Chris Winkel came to the plate with two on and one out in the inning. The tri-captain roped his second double of the day to the right-center gap, bringing home both Brodnansky and Phillips.
“It’s huge for us,” Woodworth said on UConn’s 6-2 roadtrip record. ”It really gives us a lot of confidence going on the rest of the season.”
UConn can’t hang their hat on this series for too long with a pair of mid-week matchups ahead. Coming off their third-consecutive series win, dating back to Texas State, the Huskies prepare for their home opener against Hartford Tuesday afternoon, kicking off the final season of baseball at J.O Christian Field.
Kevin Arnold is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.