Baseball: New look outfield has high hopes for 2019

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The UConn Huskies tied with Bryant University 9-9. The game ended short due to darkness. Huskies Baseball’s next home game at J.O. Christian Field is on 4/25 against Rhode Island. (Photo by Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

Following a loss to Washington in the Conway regional final, then junior outfielder John Toppa expected to get selected in the MLB draft the following week. His phone never rang. “Honestly, I got over it pretty quickly,” the now senior tri-captain told SID Chris Jones. Immediately, Toppa grabbed his phone and sent a two-word text to the rest of the team: Omaha 2019.

“Obviously that’s our goal and that’s what we’re working to do every day,” Toppa said on reaching Omaha in 2019. “It’s kind of a strange dynamic. You want to do everything you can every day to achieve something that won’t come until whenever it is, May or June, but at the same time, while that’s kind of your down the road goal, you have to take care of business every day.”

Toppa is the lone returning starter in the outfield for the Huskies. A mainstay at the position, Toppa started every game for the Huskies a year ago while batting .283 with 30 RBI. After expecting to play in the Cape Cod Baseball League over the summer, Toppa decided to stay home to really “get under the hood” and work on his swing.

“Just wanted to make some mechanical changes,” the senior told Jones in the preseason. “Worked on getting in the zone earlier and staying there for longer just to increase the margin for error and allow me to drive the ball better. It’s worked out really well so far.”

Filling the holes left by guys such as Troy Stefanski and Isaac Feldstein should not have been an easy task for head coach Jim Penders. With a roster stuffed with versatile ball players, Penders seems to have found his guys.

Michael Woodworth was a second baseman a year ago. Now, the senior roams the outfield. Woodworth, or “Woody,” as his teammates and coaches call him, will be the primary defender in center field. Originally a junior college transfer, Woodworth had been an everyday centerfielder, making the transition this season all the more natural.

“It’s been seamless,” Penders said. “I mean he is a baseball player first and foremost. He played centerfield for a whole year in junior college. He’s used to it out there. I’ve never seen him put the gear on, but I think he can play them all, I really do.”

Penders noted how shallow Woodworth plays the position compared to the likes of George Springer, but said Woodworth has a real good sense of the game and can read the ball like no one else. Toppa has taken a notice to his teammate’s athleticism and even said Woodworth doesn’t take a lot of outfield reps because, well, he doesn’t need to.

“He was one of best defensive infielders last year and the couple games he did play in the outfield, he looked like he had played there every game that season,” Toppa said. “It’s no different now. He doesn’t really get reps with us in the outfield honestly because he doesn’t really need them. Just the routes he takes and his instincts, you can tell they’re really innate and he’s had them forever. He’s one of the fastest guys on the team. Between he and myself, I’m pretty confident in the ground we can cover.”

At the plate, the senior hit for a .302 average, knocked in 22 RBI and was a perfect 13-13 on stolen base attempts a season ago. In 2019, Woodworth said he wants to find a balance of patience and aggression at the plate in hopes of a hotter start to the season.

A platoon for the last outfield spot is one idea Penders has pondered this preseason, but Anthony Nucerino has other plans. After an ACL tear limited him to just 10 starts a season ago and shoulder discomfort kept him out in the fall, Nucerino has made his case to be the starter in right field this spring.

“Anthony Nucerino, who has played with some pretty brutal injuries, has pretty much left no doubt,” Toppa said about his teammate. “As far as his performance in the preseason, I cannot remember an at-bat where he’s had a bat at-bat or even gotten out really. An expression coach likes to use a lot is ‘make it blatantly obvious that you should be playing,’ and he’s made it about as obvious as you can make it.”

“It may begin as a platoon,” Penders said on the right field situation. “Anthony Nucerino may have had the best preseason that I can recall any position player having, and that’s good because he needed to because he had one of the worst falls I can remember. It’s ‘what have you done for me lately?’ and he’s done a lot. In the preseason he’s looked really, really good.”

While Nucerino will begin as the right fielder, Penders mentioned a number of other guys who may step in from time to time. Michael Chiovitti is a junior transfer from the Avery Point campus who may get some time out there as well as offensive-minded Kyler Fedko. Fedko, a freshman, is the younger brother of sophomore infielder Christian Fedko.

The DH spot in the lineup will change from game-to-game. Penders has a lot of young, versatile position players on his bench, looking for ways to get into games. Catchers Thad Phillips and Phil Gozzo may slide their way into the lineup via the DH spot.

The Huskies start their season down in Florida with a three-game series with the fourth-ranked Louisville Cardinals.

“We just have to find that happy medium between keeping that main goal in mind of hoisting that trophy at the end of the season and also staying in the moment and doing everything we can to beat Louisville on Friday Saturday and Sunday this week,” Toppa said.


Kevin Arnold is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at kevin.arnold@uconn.edu.

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