Over the weekend, during a frustrating series loss to Cincinnati, the UConn baseball dugout was eerily quiet. While the Bearcats appeared to be enjoying themselves and playing loose, for the Huskies, it was all business and no play.
On the baseball diamond, focus and professionalism are important. But to be successful, you have to have fun too.
“It’s not a lack of effort, it’s a good attitude, it’s a good group of guys,” head coach Jim Penders said after the series. “If anything, Cincinnati played a lot looser, and got better results. They were looser in the box, looser on the mound.”
It was a different story in this week’s midweek matchups. The Huskies come away 2-0 with wins at Bryant and at home against Northeastern, and the change in energy and confidence was clearly visible.
“We were just having fun out there, and that’s what you have to do because at the end, it’s just a game,” Anthony Prato said after Wednesday’s win over Northeastern. “We played a lot cleaner and looser, and you could see that.”
After recording four errors in Sunday’s loss, Wednesday looked like it was going to be another ugly one. On the first play of the game, thirdbaseman Conor Moriarty tried to make a difficult throw to first on a groundball. It got away from firstbaseman Chris Winkel, allowing the runner to advance to the second.
However, this time, the Huskies didn’t get rattled. Colby Dunlop struck out two batters looking and Pat Winkel threw out the runner attempting to steal third. Moriarty would go on to have one of his best games of the season, going 2-for-4 with two runs scored and good contact in every at-bat.
When UConn exploded for four runs in the next inning, seizing a 4-1 lead, the dugout was loud, energetic and relaxed—a clear improvement from the weekend.
“It’s a chicken and the egg phenomenon,” Penders said on Wednesday. “When you’re ahead, and when guys are getting two-out RBIs, it’s easy to be energetic. When we’re having pop-outs and punch-outs and strikeouts looking with runners on second and third, it’s really hard for the dugout to be enthusiastic.”
While hitting, the team was as vocal and lighthearted as it’s been all year, giving constant encouragement to the batters and tossing in the occasional inside joke.
“We try to have as much energy as possible, and I think it fires our guys up when we have it going,” Dunlop said.
The bench was just as loud in the other half of the frame, feeding confidence to the pitchers, oohing and ahhing after impressive pitches and (respectfully) questioning close strike calls. Dunlop, who threw four innings of one-run ball with five strikeouts, said he tries to block most of it out.
“I just totally block it out completely, I can’t say it affects me at all,” Dunlop said. “In between pitches when I’m walking back to the mound, I’ll hear it, but once I’m on the mound it’s nothing to me.”
Even as the sun faded, the wind picked up and the temperatures dropped, UConn continued to manufacture its own energy. In the eighth, redshirt freshman Caleb Wurster was brought in to start the inning. He threw exactly one pitch, generated a fly-out to center, and was promptly taken out.
As he made his way back to the dugout, he high-fived the air several times before being swarmed by teammates. “You’re my hero!” and “Are you sure you don’t need water?” were called out. Wurster jokingly responded by asking for some Icy-Hot.
“It was just kind of a joke, [our coaches] like the lefty-on-lefty matchups, even to the fullest extent of just one pitch, one out, that’s it for me, ice it up,” Wurster said on that return to the dugout. “We had really good energy in the dugout today, everybody was loose, everybody was having a good time.”
It was a solid 6-2 victory on the heels of a 11-6 win over Bryant. Getting back in the win column is great, but restoring mojo and camaraderie is just as important.
“We need the energy in the dugout and on the field to be positive all the time,” Penders said.
“You can’t practice that in the barn or in batting practice, you need to do it in-game. The guys did it very well in the last two games.”
Andrew Morrison is the associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at @asmor24