UConn baseball kept on rolling in conference play this weekend, taking two out of three from Tulane on the way to their fifth series victory in a row this season.
The Huskies split the games played in Hartford at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, dominating the Green Wave 6-2, then turning around and dropping a disappointing 7-1 loss. The Huskies didn’t dwell on it however, and finished off the Green Wave back at J.O. Christian Field by a score of 9-2.
“We played a terrible game [on Saturday] and to come back [on Sunday] the way that we did, it’s very illustrative of our character,” head coach Jim Pender said. “We tell them at the beginning of the year that we’re gonna win a third and lose a third, it’s the middle third that makes the difference and if you win two out of three, you’re gonna be contending for a championship.”
With the series win, UConn now ranks third in the American with a 9-6 conference record behind USF and Houston, who both are yet to play their conference bye week. UConn leads the conference in RPI, ranking 13th in the nation.
The Huskies struck the initial blow in the series opener on Friday, jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the first with three consecutive hits: a single from left fielder John Toppa and a bunt from shortstop Anthony Prato put runners on first and second, then catcher Zac Susi cleared them off with a triple into deep center.
Susi then scored on a wild pitch from Tulane starter Kaleb Roper (who got the loss on the day), and the Huskies went up 3-0 early and never looked back.
Prato had the best game overall for the Huskies, going 3-4 and scoring twice off two doubles and the single.
Starter Mason Feole had himself a night, spinning 6.1 innings with nine strikeouts and one earned run in his third appearance as UConn’s Friday starter since Tim Cate’s injury.
UConn has seemed fated to play in deciding games on Sundays all year, as all but one of the Huskies’ series this year have come down to the final game, and this weekend was not an outlier in that regard. Tulane took UConn’s blow and hit them a punch right back on Saturday in game two of the series.
It was a tale of two starts for starting pitcher Chase Gardner, making his first appearance since his injury two weeks ago against Wichita State.
Gardner made it through four innings without giving up a hit but struggled in the fifth, hitting two Tulane batters and walking one to load up the bases, which caused him to get pulled for junior Dan Rajkowski.
“He doesn’t usually walk guys but today he just didn’t have his command,” Penders said. “When coach [Josh] McDonald went out there, he said ‘I’m trying, but it just feels like I haven’t pitched in two weeks,’ and he hasn’t.”
Rajkowski struck out two, but then gave up a towering grand slam to left field that emptied the bases and put Tulane up 5-1.
The Huskies were getting good contact with the ball all day, but couldn’t convert the hits into runs. Right fielder Isaac Feldstein had the most success at the plate for UConn, going [2-4] on the day with a single and a double.
Free passes doomed the Huskies pitching staff, as they gave up eight total on the day including three in the top of the fifth, and Tulane center fielder Grant Witherspoon made them pay big time that put the Green Wave up 5-1.
UConn had to have a short memory however as the deciding game of the series approached fast on Sunday, but the Huskies wiped their minds and took care of business to win the series.
“We were clicking on all cylinders for sure,” Toppa said, after a great outing where he went 2-4 with two RBI. “The goal for every weekend is just to win two out of three no matter who you’re playing, and it was a huge team effort all around.”
First baseman Chris Winkel had a tough game on Saturday along with the rest of the team, going 0-4 with two strikeouts, but recovered in a big way on Sunday with two hits in four at-bats including a monster shot to right field to kick off a three-run second for the Huskies.
“Last year I would have worried about him getting too big with his swing there but he’s pretty locked in right now,” Penders said. “If he knows a fastball’s coming he’s gonna give it a ride, he’s really our most improved hitter from a year ago.”
Maybe the most important cog to UConn’s series win was Sunday starter Jeff Kersten, who went 6.2 innings and played his role in the rotation to the fullest, facing 25 Tulane batters and retiring more than half of them via groundout.
Kersten had to pitch for longer than anticipated, as the Huskies were missing flamethrower Jake Wallace who was benched for showing up late to the team breakfast that morning, Penders said.
“Kersten had to do a little extra today, he was awesome, and I think he could have gone the whole distance but we wanted to get [PJ] Poulin some time out there,” Penders said.
Poulin came in for Kersten in the sixth inning, pitching 2.1 perfect innings and collecting four K’s to put Tulane away.
Rain showers delayed the game for 42 minutes in the top of the third, but while Kersten was staying warm in UConn’s indoor facility the other Huskies were having a little fun with Tulane in between laying the tarp down and taking it off.
“We were cracking jokes, we had a thing going where we would write stuff on baseballs and throw it over to them and they would write stuff on them and throw it over to us,” Toppa said.
Despite splitting the two games there, the experience at Dunkin Donuts Park in Hartford was great for players and fans alike.
“We play in some beautiful ballparks all all around this league, but this is a big-time atmosphere and it’s nice to have the stands cheering for you for once,” Penders said. “The management here treats us like gold too, you would think we’re major leaguers the way they treat our guys and our staff.”
After exam week, the Huskies will be up next away against Memphis, then will return home for big series the following two weeks against red-hot Houston and ECU, two top contenders in the American.
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.