In their week or so at the American Athletic Conference baseball tournament, UConn baseball is staying at the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort and Spa. Situated directly on Clearwater Beach, the Hilton (according to their official website) gives access to ocean activities like snorkeling, parasailing, waterboarding, even Captain Memo’s private cruise.
But in his first trip to Clearwater, freshman phenom Patrick Winkel isn’t super impressed with the beach named the best in the United States and sixth-best in the world by TripAdvisor. He’s more of a pool guy.
“I wouldn’t want to step on anything in the water at the beach and get hurt,” Winkel said. “I would say the pool is the bigger thing. It's got underwater speakers, I mean, you can't beat that.”
Whatever his preference is between pools and beaches, Winkel definitely seems to be enjoying his first experience in Clearwater.
Patrick Winkel had heard about how UConn turns on the jets when they get to Clearwater in the postseason. His brother had experienced it twice already, a semifinal appearance against Houston in 2017 and the final in 2018 against ECU. But he hasn’t gotten his first taste until this year. He’s liking it.
“It’s great to see the team turn it on at the tournament, I had heard that in previous years when they’ve been here, whether playing they’re playing great baseball or not-so-good baseball at the end of the season, when they get here they just turn it on,” Winkel said. “They play gritty, they grind out wins and that’s exactly what we’ve done the first two games.”
Winkel himself has turned it on in the postseason so far as well, continuing his hot streak that started all the way back in April (he’s hitting .447 since then). Winkel has raised his average up to .310 on the year with a 4.67 slugging percentage, good enough for second on the team.
He’s slow and steady at the plate, showing the patience of a catcher three years his senior, and that was on full display Thursday, first when he took a changeup from Wichita State starter Tommy Barnhouse and lightly placed it on top of the palm trees that grow beyond right field in Spectrum Field.
“I was actually upset I missed that first fastball, but I knew he was probably gonna go off-speed [next], and just the fact that it’s a righty-on-lefty matchup I was anticipating a changeup,” Winkel said. “It was a good pitch by him, but I got enough on it to put it through the wind.”
That solo shot opened up the scoring for UConn, and his next hit would provide the Huskies with the go-ahead run. John Toppa had found a way, any way, to get himself on in the top of the ninth with a single to left center, Michael Woodworth moved him over with a hit of his own, and Anthony Prato did his job, laying down a perfect sacrifice bunt.
This set the stage for Winkel, who pulled an RBI single through the right side, scoring the go-ahead run.
“The infield was in, so I know I didn’t have to hit it hard to put it through, I just needed to put the ball in play so our baserunners could do what they do,” Winkel said.
As the catchers’ coach, and a former catcher himself, head coach Jim Penders was quick to remind us that Winkel had plenty to make for from earlier in the game, when he let a bounced slider from CJ Dandeneau get away from him, allowing Boyer to come around and score.
“I was ticked off, I was about as angry as I’ve ever been at him, and he knew that,” Penders said. “But you know what, he has a slow heartbeat at the plate and he was able to come through big in the moment [later in the game].”
Despite his ridiculous poise at the plate and preternatural framing ability, Winkel is still a freshman prone to mistakes like that, but clean them up and keep hitting at an all-conference level, and his hot start at the conference tournament could only be the beginning.
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.