Freshman seasons are like rollercoasters; full of ups and downs, unexpected turns and adjustments. But while rollercoasters automatically climb back up from their lows, baseball players have to do that on their own.
To say this weekend was a rollercoaster for freshman catcher Patrick Winkel is an understatement. He launched the first two home runs of his UConn career Sunday, nearly leading the team to a series victory over Cincinnati. He was also right in the middle of the play that ultimately led to the loss.
“I think that’s probably my first multi-home run game since little league, so that was a good feeling,” Winkel said after the game. “We just have to clean it up. Defensively, offensively, we looked a little stand-backish. We need one guy to step up and drive people in when there’s runners in scoring position, we just need to be more aggressive.”
The struggles began Friday. In the second inning, Winkel threw off his catcher’s mask straight back instead of sideways, nearly hitting the umpire and warranting a few words. Two innings later, Winkel was slow backing up a throw, earning some angry shouting from head coach Jim Penders from the dugout, telling him to get his head in the game.
At the plate instead of behind it, things weren’t much better. Winkel went 0-for-3 with a strikeout before being replaced by a pinch hitter in the ninth. The Huskies went on to score three runs that inning, falling just short of a remarkable comeback.
Related to Friday’s performance or not, Winkel began the game from the bench with Thad Phillips starting behind the plate. And when he did enter the game, it was another rough go of it. Winkel came in during the sixth to pinch hit for Phillips and promptly struck out swinging. He worked a walk in the eighth, only to be caught stealing.
That all led to Sunday’s rubber game, playing in front of a large Winkel family gathering. In some ways, it was easily Winkel’s best game in a UConn uniform yet, and one he’ll remember for a long time. In others, it was one he’ll try to forget about as soon as possible.
In the second, Winkel crushed a pitch to the opposite field for his first homer as a Husky, handing UConn a 1-0 lead. In the fourth inning, he hit one even farther, demolishing a ball to the right to give the lead back to UConn, 2-1.
“We talked to Pat a little bit this past week just to be more aggressive with his swings,” Penders said. “He can get base hits, but we need him to drive the ball … We didn’t have anything going but at least he was hitting the ball a long way for us and gave us a chance to win.”
But the young catcher also made a game-altering mistake in the fifth. A single up the middle from Cincy’s Wyatt Stapp allowed one run to score, beating the throw home. Winkel got greedy, trying to throw behind Stapp at first. Instead, he fired it into right field, allowing another runner to score and Stapp to advance all the way to third; he would score on the next play on an error by second baseman Christian Fedko.
“He was trying to make an aggressive play to get us out of an inning, and the play just wasn’t there,” Penders said. “I think that was his first error of the season, he’s a very reliable, steady defensive catcher … But when [the second baseman] is on the run, you’ve gotta eat it.”
Just like that, it was 4-3 Cincy, but given the defensive meltdown that had just occurred, the deficit felt much larger. The Huskies never regained the lead.
“Another young guy, another rookie getting some experience,” Penders said. “We wish it hadn’t cost us as badly as it did, but that’s not the reason we lost the ballgame.”
In the top of the sixth, a wild pitch got away from Winkel and a runner on second took off for third. Winkel sprinted to the ball, scooped it up and came up ready to fire. Except this time, he wisely ate it. In the next pitch, the batter grounded out to third to end the inning.
It was a minor play, not acknowledged in the box score, but it was evidence that Winkel was already learning from his mistakes. And if he keeps sending pitches into the outfield seats, he’ll quickly become one of the key cogs on the talented roster.
“I think it’s just getting back and winning a couple games this week, playing Bryant who’s supposed to be a really good team,” Winkel said. “If we get a couple wins, we’ll be right back on track.”