Baseball: Strong showing needed in final weeks of the season to secure NCAA tournament spot

Huskies look to get hot down the stretch. Photo by Brandon Barzola/The Daily Campus

A look at UConn’s tournament chances in the home stretch

Even though Penders hasn’t take a class at UConn in 25 years, he still dreads exam week every time it rolls around.

“it’s one of my most miserable weeks of the year because you just can’t work with the team very much,” Penders said. “It’s important for them to get some work in on their own in between studying to address some weaknesses.”

The Huskies will have a team workout on Sunday, a team practice on Wednesday, but those will be the only two occasions that they’ll be in the same place at the same time this week ahead of a pivotal home series against South Florida.

UConn is sitting pretty at No. 28 in RPI, and most major college baseball publications have them making the NCAA tournament, but they still have some work to do if they want to secure their place.

The committee does take RPI into account, but they also consider conference record, and finishing the year over .500 is far preferable to ending .500 or below. With their series win this weekend, the Huskies sit at 9-9 in The American, not the most comfortable spot for the Huskies.

To more or less lock down their place before the conference tournament, they’ll either have to win back-to-back series against South Florida at home and Tulane on the road, or sweep one weekend and take one out of two three the other.

South Florida has had a year to forget, just 0.5 games out of last place in the conference, but sweeping teams in conference play is difficult and series wins are no cakewalk either; The Huskies will have their work cut out for them on graduation weekend no matter what.

The week after, UConn finishes up their regular season in New Orleans against a much-improved Tulane. The Green Wave are second in The American while 80th in RPI, a product of their poor record against teams outside of the top 100. UConn is currently projected to drop two out of three against Tulane, which would deal a large blow against their attempt to qualify for the NCAA tournament without a great showing in Clearwater.

The Huskies will likely need a strong showing in the conference tournament no matter what, but if they start clicking in the final two weeks of the regular season, their NCAA tournament chances might feel a little more secure.

Jeffrey Kersten, strikeout pitcher?

Jeffrey Kersten has pitched to contact his entire career, from Pinole Valley High School to Sierra Valley Community College to Storrs, CT. He fits the prototype: Sinking action on the fastball, easily the pitch he throws most often, then a rarely-used knockout slider, picking the corners. But this year something changed, and the lanky right-hander has started to miss more bats – and he has no idea why.

“I just go up there and see if they can hit it, and this year I guess they haven’t been able to as much,” Kersten said. “I really don’t know, I think it’s just growing and learning the game a little more.

Kersten surpassed his 2019 strikeout total of 44 with seven games and an entire postseason left, punching out his 47th batter on Saturday. Previously getting batters to ground out a majority of the time, Kersten has struck out five or more in six of 12 starts this season.

One possible reason for this change is simply better location. Pitchers like Kersten live on the margins; a missed pitch down in the low 90s or high 80s can lead to some hard contact, so he stays low in the zone on the outside corner, not giving away too much of the plate, and he’s been doing a better job at hitting his spots so far in 2019.

“He’s a guy who’s gonna live on the corners and die on the corners, and he does a good job at it,” head coach Jim Penders said. “Because if he misses middle instead of off the plate, he’s gonna get hit hard.”

It’s allowed him to be a more effective pitcher overall, at least so far. His ERA is only marginally better, 4.57 this year compared to 4.66 in 2018, but he’s been able to stretch further into games, averaging 5.1 innings per outing, a large jump from around 3.2 innings last year. Hitters have to figure out how to get any contact on him before they can start hitting him round enough to get him out of the game.

The only major trouble Kersten got into on Saturday was in the fifth inning, when he gave up a solo homer to catcher Ross Cadena, the Shockers’ only run of the day. Home runs are a rarity for Kersten, he’s only given up three through 12 appearances so far this year, but the abundance of ground balls means that he has to have full faith in his infield.

“I like to make my defense work for me a little bit, I trust them, trust my stuff and let them do their thing,” Kersten said.


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