UConn took game one of their series against ECU 3-2 on Thursday in a white-knuckle, back and forth contest that featured great defensive plays and clutch pitching from the Huskies.
“We dodged a lot of bullets,” head coach Jim Penders said after the game. “There were baserunners on both sides the whole game, a lot of leadoff walks that you don’t normally work around, but the pitchers did a good job.”
PJ Poulin had maybe his most clutch performance as UConn’s closer to date, tying the school’s single season save record of 14 set by old friend John Russell in 2017.
Poulin was sent directly into the hornets’ nest stepping on the mound in the seventh, as ECU had the tying run in scoring position with fearsome leadoff man Bryant Packard at the plate.
The American Athletic Conference batting leader had gone 2-4 with two singles and a run scored before his appearance against Poulin. If anyone was going to tie up the game, it would have been him. Instead, Poulin worked him to a 2-2 count, brushed him off the plate with a high fastball, then pulled the rug out from under him with a slider that ended the inning and the threat.
“I hated the idea of putting on the go-ahead run, we were going left-on-left there and putting our faith on our closer who has been our guy all year. And I’ll bet on him any day,” Penders said.
From the very start, UConn’s defense was the story of the game. On the second pitch of game, Packard hit a sharp liner into right, but Isaac Feldstein was on his horse and tracked it down for the first out, setting the tone early.
This greatly helped out starting pitcher Mason Feole, who didn’t have his best stuff, but finished with a solid 6.1 IP with four strikeouts and only one earned run. ECU was hitting him pretty hard, with most of his outs coming on long pop flies and line drives, compounded with allowing the leadoff hitter to reach base in four of seven innings.
“They hit some rockets, but he didn’t get on his heels,” Penders said. “A year ago, he would have been spooked by that, so that’s real progress from him and something our young pitchers can learn from.”
The Huskies’ lone miscue on the defensive side of the ball came in the top of the second inning. Drew Henrickson drew a walk, and center fielder Brady Lloyd singled into center, putting men on first and second for ECU’s worst hitter, Troy Brown.
The shortstop hit a light chopper to the usually outstanding third baseman Conor Moriarty, who led first baseman Chris Winkel a little too much and drew him off the bag, allowing Henrickson to score from second, getting the Pirates on the board first.
Their lead wouldn’t last long however, as the UConn bats woke up in the bottom of the inning. Troy Stefanski reached base on a swinging bunt where the throw was fumbled by the first baseman, and Michael Woodworth roped a double down the left field line.
Winkel was up next and poked a single into right field, collecting his 30th RBI of the year and moving Woodworth to third. John Toppa would then drive Woodworth in with a single through the right side.
Moriarty would redeem himself in the fifth inning, when he took a tough, hard-hit ball to the hot corner and whipped it without hesitation to Woodworth at second, who would turn the double play.
UConn would add the eventual winning run in the bottom of the fifth. Catcher Zac Susi walked to start the inning, extending his on-base streak to an absurd 28 games, Feldstein moved him to third on a double and Stefanski drove him in with an RBI groundout, making it 3-1.
Feole allowed the first two batters to reach in the sixth, but was pumped up on the mound when he retired the next three batters and was sent out to face Packard again in the seventh.
But the leadoff man knocked his second hit of the day, and Feole was yanked for the deadly relief combo of Jake Wallace and Poulin. Funny enough, Feole said he felt a sense of relief walking off the mound.
“Any time you give the ball to Wallace and PJ, you can’t help but think the game’s over,” Feole said. “As soon as you heard “Welcome to the Jungle” over the PA, it gives you a good feeling.”
It wasn’t like they didn’t get any help, however, as the Husky infield helped Wallace out of a tough jam in the seventh. The flamethrower didn’t have his best command, giving up two walks and a single to load the bases with one out and let up a run, making it 3-2.
In the next at-bat, Henrickson hit a chopper to short that send Prato flailing backward, but he got enough on the throw to Woodworth at second to turn the inning-ending double play, ending ECU’s last real scoring threat of the game.
“[Prato] had some work yesterday on throws, we got on him a little bit and the guys broke his stones a little bit about his defense, and he was ready to make the play when he had to,” Penders said.
In what seems like a weekly tradition at this point, a Husky series will once again be altered by weather, as UConn and ECU will move their Saturday game up to a doubleheader on Friday starting at 11 a.m., giving both teams an extra day of rest before taking off for the conference tournament.
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.