Sitting at No. 22 in the nation, the UConn baseball team is looking to capture the American Athletic Conference title for the second time in three years. They’re already halfway there.
Forced to play a doubleheader due to weather concerns, the Huskies had less than an hour to recuperate between games one and two. But if any team is prepared to play with sudden schedule changes, it’s UConn.
The Huskies rode behind a dominant pitching performance in their first game against Cincinnati and a comeback effort in their second game against Wichita State to take the first two games of the tournament by scores of 6-2 and 7-4, respectively.
In game one, ace Mason Feole was able to keep Cincinnati’s offense at bay and the UConn offense made some noise in the late innings to carry them to victory.
“Early on, (Feole) was struggling a little bit, bouncing a lot of fastballs and bouncing some breaking balls,” UConn head coach Jim Penders said in an interview with the American Conference. “But he found that rhythm and he had that big 1-2-3 inning after we scored – that was huge, it really was a big momentum swing.”
The fiery sophomore threw seven innings and limited the Bearcats to two runs on five hits to go with 11 strikeouts. As Penders alluded to in his postgame interview, Feole struggled with location early, but ended up with only two walks.
UConn’s (33-18-1, 15-10 The American) Michael Woodworth provided the big blow for the Huskies in the fifth inning when he launched his fourth home run of the season to give his team the 4-0 lead.
Cincinnati (28-27, 12-12 The American) mustered two runs against Feole in the bottom half of the fifth inning, when he gave up a big fly to Eric Santiago—that was the first baseman’s only hit in the contest. The Bearcats yet to win a tournament game since the inception of The American in 2014.
With yet another stellar performance from Feole, the lefty now has a record of 9-1. His lone loss came against the Bearcats on April 20, when he pitched a complete game and allowed one run.
Senior Isaac Feldstein had a double and two RBIs, while Zac Susi mashed a double to extend his on-base streak to 41 games. Sophomore Anthony Prato was on base all afternoon, going 4-for-5 and scoring a run.
“We are going to do a quick change and just rinse that one off. It’s all gone, it has nothing to do with the second ball game,” Penders said.
In game two, UConn struck first in the top of the first, as Wichita State ace Kodi Heuer gave up two leadoff walks and a hit-by-pitch to start the inning. Cleanup hitter Isaac Feldstein then grounded into a double play, but the Huskies were on the board 1-0.
Wichita State jumped all over UConn starter Chase Gardner in the bottom of the second. Gardner’s slider was nasty, but it was so nasty that he needed five outs to complete the inning, as two different Shockers advanced on dropped third strikes. Wichita State scored four runs in the inning, half of them on a pair of wild pitches and the other half on a fielder’s choice and a single.
UConn would strike back in the top of the fifth inning, and this time it was Heuer with the control troubles. John Toppa walked, advanced to third on a pair of wild pitches, then came home on a passed ball after Anthony Prato walked.
Isaac Feldstein would almost tie the game up right in his next at-bat with a huge cut to center field, but would have a settle for an RBI triple. The slugger was sent home two pitches later anyways by an RBI single from Troy Stefanski, and the game was tied 4-4.
Tim Cate would enter the game for Gardner in the next frame, just his second appearance since being sidelined for 50 days with forearm tightness. Cate battened down the hatches for the Huskies, spinning 3.2 innings of scoreless ball, allowing the Huskies to gather themselves for the win.
Cate allowed just one hit and one walk while striking out seven, passing Anthony Kay for the most in UConn history with 264.
Toppa then led off the top of the seventh with a single, and the red-hot Susi drove him home with a ground ball single through the right side. After Feldstein popped out, it was Stefanski’s turn to make his mark on the game, and he did it with a triple just out of the reach of Wichita State left fielder Ross Cadena that brought home Susi to put the Huskies on top 6-4.
The Huskies would get one more insurance run on a two out rally in the top of the eighth. Conor Moriarty drew a 3-1 walk, pinch hitter Anthony Nucerino moved him over to second with a single that bounced over the mound and Prato drove a ball by two diving infielders to left, extending the UConn lead to 7-4.
Poulin would enter in the bottom of the ninth to close it out and was near spotless save for one mistake. The potential top-10 overall draft pick Alex Bohm could not be held down for long and took his frustrations out on a ball that sailed over the left-center wall.
But Poulin would retire the next three Shockers, leading UConn to the win.
UConn is set to play the winner of Wichita State vs. South Florida at 12:30 p.m. for a berth in the American championship game. Should the Huskies lose, they would get another chance to beat the same team to get in the title game, per the double elimination format.
Michael Logan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.