After a red-hot start to 2020 that was cut short due to COVID-19, UConn baseball is finally back as the Huskies travel to Virginia to face off against the Cavaliers for their opening series. Head coach Jim Penders can’t wait for his team to get back into action.
“I have never looked forward to a season as much as I’ve looked forward to this one,” Penders said on a Zoom call with the media on Wednesday. “It’s been the longest off-season of my life. For most of us, not playing a game since mid-March, it’s been difficult. That lack of competition has been a strain along with a lot of other things with regard to COVID and our current situation. We’re just chomping at the bit to get going and see a different uniform.”
UConn heads into 2021 with some lofty expectations, entering as the preseason favorite to win the Big East Conference in their first year back after earning five of eight first place votes. Four Huskies also earned individual preseason honors, with Kyler Fedko selected as the Big East Preseason Co-Player of the Year while Christain Fedko, Reggie Crawford and Caleb Wurster were all placed on the Preseason All-Big East Team.
But for Fedko, who shares the Player of the Year honor with Tyler Shedler-McAvoy of Seton Hall, this season isn’t about the individual accolades, but what they can do as a team.
“With all these awards coming out, it’s easy to lose sight of the team and bonds that we have as a community,” Fedko said. “It’s more staying together and doing our thing and just doing what we know best. It’s not really pressure coming into a new conference and being a favorite. It’s just doing what we know how to do and everyone doing their job.”
The younger of the Fedko brothers is UConn’s best bat, slashing an impressive .412/.434/.627 line and leading the team in hits (21), runs scored (12) and homers (2) in his 13 appearances last season. He ended the year on a six-game hit streak and will look to carry that momentum into the new year with a tough first matchup.
Behind the sophomore, UConn has plenty of other pieces contributing to their offensive firepower. Captain Chris Winkle is back for a fifth year after slashing .348/.404/.457 last season, as well as Freshman All-American Reggie Crawford who led the team with 16 RBIs and junior Erik Stock who put together an absurd .484/.556/.581 line in nine appearances.
On the mound, Ben Casparius will finally get to play in a Huskies uniform after transferring from North Carolina last season. The junior from Westport, CT will step in as the Huskies ace and is the No. 1 prospect in the Big East according to D1baseball.com. And in the matchup between the Huskies’ top-hitter and ace pitcher, it seems Casparius has the edge early.
“I always have to face him at 8 or 9 in the morning, 30 minutes after waking up with an energy drink popped and minimal food,” Fedko said. “It is the worst experience. … He probably has struck me out 10 out of the last 12 at-bats. He makes me so mad… I’m really glad that I don’t have to face him again.”
Matching up against a tough opponent in Virginia this weekend though, all facets of this UConn team are going to have to be firing on all cylinders if they want to repeat their early success from last year.
The Cavaliers are returning several key players from 2020 that should allow the team to compete in an incredibly deep Atlantic Coastal Conference. Virginia sat at 14-4 before last season was cut short, and with these pieces back are once again NCAA tournament hopefuls.
UVA’s best hitter is second-year freshman Chris Newell, who slashed a .407/.545/.729 line, adding 24 hits, a team-best 20 RBIs and four homers in 18 starts. Behind Newell, seven other batters hit over .300 in their shortened season, highlighted by Zack Gelof. The sophomore heavy-hitter tallied 22 hits, a team-high six doubles and five home runs, and 18 RBIs on the year. There is talent up and down the lineup that will force UConn to stay on top of their game in each at-bat.
Pitching has been the downfall of these Virginia teams in recent years, but they seem to have finally found a solution in Andrew Abbott and Griff McGarry.
After going undrafted in the 2020 MLB draft due to a high asking price, Abbott is back for another year. In nine appearances (mainly in relief) for the Cavaliers, the junior went 3-0 and looked dominant, boasting a 1.35 ERA and striking out 18 batters in 13.1 innings. Abbott may transition to a starting role this season and pitch close to 100 innings, making him a name to watch in Virginia’s rotation.
McGarry meanwhile, is the ace from last season who also went 3-0 in his four appearances, putting together an impressive 1.35 ERA and striking out 31 batters though 20 innings. He also tallied 19 walks on the season, something the Huskies savvy lineup can pick up on early.
This series will be a tough one to start the year for UConn, but Penders said this is the competition they must face if they hope to go somewhere come postseason.
“Ultimately, we want to win a national championship,” Penders said. “In order to be the best, you have to beat the best… They expect to win, no matter who we’re playing.”
This weekend series kicks off a 17-game road stretch for the Huskies, with games set for Friday and Saturday at 3 p.m. and 1 p.m. respectively, before it wraps up with a Sunday game at 1 p.m. All three games can be watched through the ACC Network.