After a 3-2 win against ECU on Thursday, No. 22 UConn looked to leave no doubt as to their tournament resume and get back in the conversation to host a regional by winning their series at home against No. 9 ECU, and they did just that.
The Huskies dropped game on of the doubleheader by a score of 6-3, but came right back in game two with a 4-2 win to take the series behind clutch pitching.
ECU superstar Bryant Packard had a herculean effort to even up the series in the first game of the day. The American batting leader went 3-4 with a double, two monstrous opposite field homers to account for half of ECU’s runs, and saved another by gunning down Christian Fedko at the plate from right field.
“We definitely didn’t love seeing him up there this weekend that’s for sure, he did really good job of hitting it the other way,” left fielder John Toppa said.
UConn starter Jeff Kersten didn’t have his best stuff on the day, leaving balls up in the zone that went for base hits instead of the desired groundouts.
ECU started off the scoring early, as Packard doubled to left and was sent home on a fielder’s’ choice from Spencer Brickhouse. The first baseman had a good day at the plate as well, going 2-5 and driving in two runs.
ECU would add on to their lead in the fourth and fifth with homers from Packard and Brickhouse making it 5-0, but UConn would finally get on the board in the bottom of the fifth, when a pair of doubles from Conor Moriarty and John Toppa scored a run, and catcher Zac Susi drove in Toppa from third, who advanced on a passed ball, bringing the Huskies within two.
Then ECU relief arm Trey Benton entered the game, and put the Huskies to sleep. The Pirates’ former ace to start the season tossed three innings of scoreless ball to shut the door on the Huskies.
UConn’s back was against the wall, with game two coming just 40 minutes after the end of the first, and they responded in fashion with help from old friend Tim Cate, who came out of the bullpen to pitch for the first time in exactly 50 days since he went out with forearm tightness.
“It’s been a long time coming and I’m just happy to be out there and help the team out,” Cate said. “It’s kinda what I’ve been looking forward to the whole time I’ve been out, so seeing all that hard work paying off felt good today.”
Cate pitched the sixth and seventh, giving up four hits, no runs and struck out one. The lefty was hitting the zone early and often, with 27 of his 34 pitches falling in for strikes.
UConn’s ace served as the bridge to closer PJ Poulin from starter Chase Gardner, who had a great performance in his own right, going five innings with only one earned run and three hits, facing 18 batters and striking out seven of them.
Gardner started out perfect through three innings, collecting six of his strikeouts before surrendering his first hit to, guess who, Packard in the top of the fourth. He would go on to become his only earned run, scoring on a sacrifice fly from Brickhouse.
Gardner would settle down to throw one more inning of scoreless ball however, before making way for Cate in the sixth.
“I saw at Houston [last week]I was getting behind, I just wanted to get back in the zone and I knew my stuff was gonna play the more I got ahead,” Gardner said of his outing. “I was sharp with my command, hitting where I wanted to, and that translated really well.“
Gardner received run support early and often from the UConn lineup, as they beat the Pirates to the scoreboard for the first time in the series in the rubbermatch. The Huskies put up a crooked number on a two out rally in the fourth, as singles from Zac Susi, Isaac Feldstein and Troy Stefanski, drove in three runs in a row.
Michael Woodworth would add some insurance in the bottom of the fifth with a line drive home run to left field, giving Cate some extra runs to play with in his first relief appearance of the year.
Cate looked good in his two innings of work, despite giving up four singles in two innings. All his hits were given up off his signature curve, which didn’t have as much snap as usual. His fastball got a little more boost than normal however, flashing 95 on the radar guns of the numerous scouts that were gathered behind home plate
“There was a lot of adrenaline, that was my first time coming out of the pen in a while and I just wanted to let it eat a little bit,” Cate said.
Cate got ECU’s nine-hitter Kyle Barber to ground into a beautiful 5-4-3 double play started by Conor Moriarty to end the seventh, but that just meant Poulin would have to come in a little earlier than expected to face the deadly lefty Packard.
Poulin didn’t break a sweat, striking him out on a nasty slider off the outside of the plate just like on Friday, and allowed just two other baserunners in two innings of work to earn his 15th save of the year, a UConn single-season record.
The Huskies have likely locked up an NCAA tournament bid, sitting pretty at 21st in RPI as of Friday night, but will need a strong performance in the conference tournament to lock up the bid to host a regional at Dodd Stadium in Norwich.
With the victory, the Huskies finished the season at 32-18-1, 14-10 in the American. UConn will play on Wednesday of the conference tournament as the No. 3 seed, taking on No. 6 seed Cincinnati at 3 p.m.
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.