“SHELL ONE!” UConn baseball hitting coach Jeff Hourigan shouts at practice, and UConn players rush around the makeshift playing field inside of the Shenkman Training Facility to their assigned positions. They take a dozen or so practice hits from Hourigan, then he yells “SHELL TWO.” Again, different players rush to different positions around the infield.
The team is practicing different infield and outfield combinations, but they’re also unintentionally showcasing the extreme versatility they have in the infield for the 2019 season. This year, the team has more options than head coach Jim Penders and the rest of the coaching staff have possibly ever had on their hands before.
“We’ve had maybe our biggest group of position players that I can recall,” Penders said at media day Tuesday. “We’re gonna have a lot of versatility, and that’s gonna be one of our strengths, there are a lot of moving parts.”
Out of the five infield spots, only two established starters will return to their original positions — senior Anthony Prato at shortstop and junior Chris Winkel at first base.
With all of the shifting positions around the infield, Winkel’s 6-foot-five frame and wide range at first base will help act as glue between the multiple moving parts if the Huskies are to be successful at defense.
“Coach [Josh] MacDonald calls him ‘The Condor’ he’s got such a big wingspan and he can jump,” Penders said. “He’s so athletic, he’s got a really good idea of how to play defense over there and he saves a lot of errors, so it’s a nice steadying influence. He makes every infielder feel more comfortable when he’s out there.”
On the offensive side of things, Winkel will look to continue the upward trajectory he saw from his freshman year, where he hit .225/.338/.283 to his sophomore breakout year.
The other returning starter, Prato, has done just about all there is to do in college baseball since his freshman year in 2017. The junior has been the Huskies’ hit leader two consecutive years in a row, he’s batted comfortably over .300 for his career and is sure to feature near the top of UConn’s lineup once again in 2018.
Not content to rest on his laurels, however, Prato spent the offseason having fun and impressing scouts in the Cape Cod League, but more importantly worked hard to get rid of nagging injuries.
“Last year I kinda struggled, and the year before that I struggled with staying healthy, so that’s one of the things I’ve worked on,” Prato said. “Also adding more power to my game, my arm strength and hitting balls gap to gap.”
The most heralded new face in the middle of the diamond is catcher Patrick Winkel. Just eight months after playing his last game for Amity High School, the 2018 Gatorade player of the year slides right into the starting spot behind the plate for UConn.
He’s got big shoes to fill — catcher Zac Susi led the team with a .335 batting average and a .425 on-base percentage last year — but Penders has all the confidence in his freshman to impress in his first year at Storrs.
“I came in and competed my butt off, all the kids we have on the team are amazing and they all have really good skills, so for him to have the confidence to put me back there as soon as he wants to is just huge,” Winkel said. “It’s a really big honor, especially with him being a catching coach and knowing what he’s looking for.”
The second of the true newcomers to the infield is second-baseman Christian Fedko. He spent most of his time as DH last year as a freshman, demonstrating impressive power by leading the team with 15 doubles.
He’ll remain an offensive-minded player, Penders said, but he also forwent time at a summer baseball league this offseason to stay at home and train. He improved his lateral quickness to help with a move to the infield and also spent significant time in the weight room to turn those doubles into home runs.
Junior Conor Moriarty was a mainstay at third base last year, but didn’t truly lock down the starting job until later in the year due to his lackluster offense — he hit just .222, the worst of any UConn player who started multiple games. He defends his position as well as anyone in the conference, however; that’s what kept him in the lineup last year and that’s what cements him as a starter in that spot this year, according to Penders.
“He’s had his scuffles with the bat but one of the things with Conor that’s really admirable is that he doesn’t bring his at-bat into the field, he plays excellent defense,” Penders said.
Penders also said that Moriarty had maybe the best offseason of anyone on the roster, working hard to improve his bat along with his stellar defense.
Senior Thad Phillips saw time most often as catcher and DH last year, but hasn’t had the best offseason. He will have to fight for his spot as backup to Winkel with Tulane transfer cacher Paul Gozzo and freshman Kyler Fedko at third base, the hard-swinging brother of Christian whose bat could find him in the lineup most days, according to Penders.
The wildcard on the infield, and really on the entire team, is swiss army knife Will Lucas. The freshman from Fairfield featured in their lineup all four years at multiple positions, even starting at quarterback for two years for their football team.
Lucas is graded as both a pitcher and a hitter, but he figures more into a position player role this year, Penders said.
Lucas’ versatility on the diamond is a microcosm of UConn’s infield, where adaptability reigns. Having so many different players will give the coaches much more freedom in how they construct their lineups, and it could result in an even more potent offense for UConn this year.
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.