There’s probably nobody who knows UConn baseball better than Chris Jones. He is the assistant director of athletic communications, where he serves as the primary media contact for baseball. He is also the director of baseball operations and has been broadcasting UConn baseball games on the radio since he was a student at UConn.
I was able to talk to Jones about the recent three-game scrimmage “series” the Huskies held last weekend, as well as the current state of the UConn baseball program.
Jones said the team held intrasquad scrimmages on Thursday at 2 p.m., Friday at 5 p.m. and Saturday at 9 a.m., simulating a possible timeframe for a real three-game series. The team played seven innings on Thursday and Friday and eight innings on Saturday, changing up the teams for each scrimmage.
“It was great,” Jones said. “It was awesome to see them all back out there and actually playing in game scenarios, which is cool.”
These scrimmages, in addition to one the previous Saturday, were the first live contests ever played at the Huskies’ beautiful new Elliot Ballpark.
“I think the big highlight was being out at Elliot,” Jones said. “Just the difference between J.O. Christian Field and that place. It’s awesome to be out there and be under the lights and have your own stadium, your own home … It’s an awesome place.”
Jones said there were about 20 MLB scouts at Saturday’s scrimmage and a small, socially distanced crowd of scouts and family members on Friday night. Getting to play a night game on UConn’s campus is a new occurrence, as J.O. Christian Field didn’t have lights.
“I think myself and the coaches have the experience and the lookback of where this program has come from,” Jones said. “But you could see for the upperclassmen … I think they’re the ones that appreciate it the most. They’re like, ‘Wow. Where we were when we were freshmen to where we are now, it’s entirely different.’ … I think they’re gonna love being able to be out under the lights and utilize that.”
As for the scrimmages themselves, Jones said there was a lot of good baseball being played. He was especially impressed with the offense. Reggie Crawford, last year’s breakout freshman, hit a “no doubter” home run on Friday. Catcher Pat Winkel, who’s coming back from Tommy John surgery, was able to get a couple of hits on Saturday. Christian and Kyler Fedko got some nice hits, as did veteran first baseman Chris Winkel. Jones also mentioned guys like Erik Stock, Kevin Ferrer and Zach Bushling, who have been swinging that bat well.
“Our lineup is going to be super tough this year,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of options.”
On the mound, nobody stood out more to Jones than Ben Casparius, a transfer from North Carolina who had to sit out last season. He said the two innings Casparius threw on Saturday was the highlight of the weekend for him. At one point, he struck out Crawford, Chris Winkel and Stock — three of the Huskies’ best hitters — in order with ease.
“He’s our Friday night starter if the season started today,” Jones said. “He only went two innings. It was his first outing of the fall, but he just looked next level, like our aces of the past, like a Tim Cate or Anthony Kay. He was pretty special.”
Other pitchers that threw well according to Jones include Justin Willis, Jimmy Wang, Andrew Marrero, Devin Kirby and Pat Gallagher. He said the depth of this team is incredible in all areas and that he and the coaching staff believe this could be a special year for UConn baseball.
“It’s gonna be a fun team,” Jones said. “I hope we play a full season this year. [Pitching coach Josh MacDonald] has said this might be the longest UConn baseball season we’ve ever played, which would mean we go past the [super regionals] and go into Omaha, which would be pretty cool.”
One player that Jones said might surprise people next season is Ciaran Devenney, a grad transfer from UMass Lowell, who will likely see time in the lineup as Pat Winkel’s backup catcher and as a designated hitter. He showed off his good bat with a towering home run on Thursday night.
“He’s got some pop, and he can throw from behind the dish,” Jones said. “I think he’s gonna have a huge impact, whether it’s behind the plate, DH or if they put him at another position.”
As expected, head coach Jim Penders and the rest of the staff were very critical of the mistakes the team made, such as two-out walks or missed relay throws, according to Jones. But that’s what fall ball is all about: developing and fixing those mistakes so when the regular season comes, the team is playing at its highest level.
Jones said there are currently no players sidelined with injuries. The only players that didn’t participate in the scrimmages were most of the freshmen, who have yet to be cleared because of extra required tests related to COVID-19. The one freshman who did play, Bobby McBride, threw well on the mound and hit an opposite field home run on Thursday, according to Jones.
So as for the state of the UConn baseball program as a whole right now, the short answer is it’s really bright. For a slightly longer answer, I’ll let you hear it from Jones.
“I don’t think it’s ever been in a better spot than it is right now,” Jones said. “Just the way [the coaches] have built it, it’s now not if we’re going to go to the NCAA tournament, but we’re gonna be in the running for it every year. The goal isn’t to make the NCAA tournament anymore, it’s to get to the tournament and make noise … I don’t think we’re just a Northeast power anymore. I think teams know we’re kind of a national power.”