For the first time since 1979, the last time they made the College World Series, the No. 10 UConn baseball team entered the top 10 in the national polls. After dismantling the Rhode Island Rams in an impromptu matchup in Hartford for their 30th win of the season, UConn looks for another Big East series victory as they travel to Pennsylvania to take on the Villanova Wildcats.
Although Villanova is 11-28, their 5-7 conference record shows that they are not a team to be taken lightly. The Huskies won two out of three contests when these two teams last met in Storrs, but scored just seven runs as every Wildcat starter went at least five innings and combined for nine punchouts.
While the Hook C offense recorded 20 hits across that three-game set, the bats have been as fierce as ever during the regular season. Dominic Freeberger and Big East Weekly Honor Roll selection Luke Broadhurst have taken center stage, as both graduate sluggers bat over .350. Sandwiched between both batters, both of whom have at least seven homers, in the lineup is another graduate student, Jake Studley. Studley does not lead the team in any major category but has been a big contributor at the plate with a .342 batting average, 11 doubles and 40 RBIs.
Although Ben Huber (.333, 10 home runs and 47 RBIs) is temporarily out of action with a foot injury, T.C. Simmons made his return following a seven-week absence, giving the Hook C a pivotal member of their outfield. The redshirt senior’s return not only allows David Smith to transition to second base, but it also gives Connecticut another speedy threat in a power-heavy lineup. Simmons might not have a stolen base yet, but he will have pitchers attempting pickoffs often alongside Smith (27 swiped bags), Korey Morton (19) and Ryan Daniels (12).
Coming off his best performance in a Hook C jersey, one that saw him take a perfect game into the seventh against the Georgetown Hoyas, expect Big East Pitcher of the Week Andrew Sears on the hill for the third consecutive series opener. The junior lefty has come onto his own as of late, recording at least seven strikeouts while going at least four innings in each of his last four starts, and his 5.40 ERA is merely a facade of his quick pitching style.
Sears is second on the team in punchouts behind Ian Cooke, who made his return to the rotation after a one-week absence. The sophomore righty has struck out 54 hitters in nine starts but is looking to return to the win column after surrendering four runs in three innings. Cooke will most likely take either one of the final two spots in the weekend rotation, with Stephen Quigley taking the other. The graduate righty, who returned to the rotation against the Xavier Musketeers two weeks ago, has gone at least 5.2 innings in each of his last three starts.
Villanova suffered a sweep against Xavier last weekend but recovered for a narrow 5-4 win against the Wagner Seahawks two days later. This is the final leg of an eight-game homestand for the Wildcats in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, who currently sit sixth in the conference standings.
Craig Larsen and Jack O’Reilly are two hitters in the heart of Villanova’s order who can contribute in multiple ways. Larsen gets on base behind his .323 batting average and .854 OPS, but the graduate infielder also produces a handful of the Wildcats’ offense with his 11 doubles and 31 RBIs, all of which lead the team. O’Reilly’s eight home runs make him a power threat at the No. 2 hole, but despite batting .255, the senior infielder, Paul Cooke and A.J. Hansen are aggressive on the basepaths with 13 of the team’s 23 steals.
Although Villanova’s rotation has not officially been announced as of 5 p.m. Thursday, expect Cade Udell (0-5, 6.66 ERA) to get the nod in the series opener for the third straight weekend. The junior righty is hoping to go further after getting shelled for three runs in one inning against the Musketeers. Following him in the rotation will be Devin Rivera, who is one of the more consistent arms on the pitching staff. Even though he has a 2-5 record, the junior righty is very durable, as he has pitched at least five innings in all but two starts.
Given the last two weekends, expect either Cole Vanderslice or Luke Dziados to take the bump in the final game for the Wildcats. Vanderslice last took the bump on April 15 against the Butler Bulldogs, but if he does not get the nod for the series finale, then Dziados can get the job done. The senior righty is looking for a better second start in a Villanova uniform after allowing five runs in two innings against Xavier last Sunday.
The Wildcats do not have any relievers with more than one save, but Big East Weekly Honor Roll selection Zach Camp is the one they turn to the most, as he leads the team with 26 appearances. The graduate righty sports an 8.45 ERA, but even when the game is not in a save situation, he can put the contest to bed. Villanova can also rely on Stephen Turzai, another graduate righty who has a 4.21 ERA in three fewer appearances.
For the fourth straight weekend, the Hook C will play in a doubleheader. First pitch is scheduled for Friday at 11 a.m. EDT with the second game starting 30 minutes after the first one ends. The official start time for the series finale remains unannounced, but it is tentatively set for 12 p.m. on Sunday, April 30. All three contests will air on FloBaseball and MIXLR.