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UConn Baseball Weekend Preview: Tulane

Despite the Green Wave’s season not going as anticipated, they are still a dangerous team.

Willy Yahn and the Huskies hope to continue their strong start to conference play in New Orleans.

UConn Baseball has had a hot start to conference play. The Huskies’ 6-0 mark is the best since 1976 and since dropping their series to BYU to close out Spring Break the Huskies have only lost three games, going 10-3 mark in 13 contests.

Freshman shortstop Anthony Prato has been an integral part of the success from the leadoff spot in the order. He has an 11-game hitting streak going and has notched a hit in 19 of his last 21 games, failing to reach base safely only once in that streak.

Catcher Zac Susi has a 10-game streak of his own and has multiple hits in four of his last five games, coming off American Athletic Conference player of the week honors.

The pitching has come through strong, especially in conference play.

Including Wills Montgomerie’s start where he allowed seven hits to 11 batters against Memphis, who scored five earned runs in two innings, the Huskies’ pitching staff has a batting average against of .228 and an ERA of 1.64.

After an eight-run sixth inning for Bryant in a 9-3 loss against the Bulldogs on Tuesday, UConn looks to rebound down south to New Orleans, when the Huskies take on Tulane (15-18, 4-2) for a weekend series.

To prepare for the series, we talked to JP Gooderham of about the team.

The UConn Blog: Are you pleased about no snow-outs and no suspensions of games due to daylight due to the series being played down south?

Fear the Wave: You know what they say. There's nothing like a two-game series up in Storrs in the snow. But seriously, no big weather issues for us this year so life is good. We appreciated your weather reporting last year. Glad The UConn Blog put you on the Jim Cantore beat.

TUCB: What happened in the non-conference? There were a couple of long losing streaks and few wins to speak of. Was it a case of a strong schedule or something different?

FTW: For the most part, something different. Tulane entered the year with a Top 25 ranking in some polls and then proceeded to start 3-12. Not ideal. You had to go back to the Kennedy Administration to find the last time that kind of stretch happened to our program to begin a year.

During that stretch, nothing was working. The offense - which lost two very talented players in the Top 100 picks of the MLB Draft last year - was stagnant. We expected that bullpen depth could be an issue this year, but what was even more troubling was that our starters all endured some really rough first outings.

You can add some just freaky luck into that mix. Our catcher Jeremy Montalbano was trucked by a WVU player at the plate and had his season ended in a pretty suspicious play. Our freshman All-American pitcher and Sunday starter hit an early season slump and isn't in the rotation right now.

Things did not look good.

Since the Ides of March though (when Tulane secured a key in-state win in extra innings), the team turned around and has been 12-6 with back-to-back AAC series victories, which brings us up to now.

TUCB: What went right? There was a win at LSU in there.

FTW: That was an important one. A gritty road win against in-state ULL was another key stepping stone for the team's confidence. In my mind, the club noticeably improved in two factors.

First, the new guys came into their own. We have a number of freshmen who started to gel during this stretch. They started to make clutch plays on defense and find ways to drive in runs at the plate. Once that group started to mesh, I think Tulane was able to do to the little things that it takes to win close ones, where nearly all of those went against us during the stretch of darkness.

Second, starting pitchers Corey Merrill and JP France found their groove again. As I mentioned, I would have cited our weekend rotation as the strength of the team coming into this year. In the early games, that was not the case, and it was a real shock to the system. Nonetheless, Merrill and France were able to shake that off and have both returned to form over the past month. That's been a huge factor for keeping us in games early and reducing pressure on our thin bullpen.

TUCB: What has changed in conference play where the Wave have come out in second place in the conference?

FTW: I think in addition to the above, the team is playing the way that we thought they were capable of at the right time.

USF had only two losses coming into the Tulane series for our AAC opener and they walked away with another two. Cincy was essentially out of it after the early innings of both the first and the second game last weekend.

The biggest aspect I would highlight would be the return of power hitting that has been crucial to Tulane over the last couple of years. Hunter Williams has been on an incredible run, really going back to the Oxford Regional last season, and he's continued this year.

We saw a 4-HR game last night, and those types of performances have become a lot more common in the last few weeks.

TUCB: There was lots of roster attrition. How much is the team missing guys like Jake Rogers and Stephen Alemais?

FTW: This is true. We actually saw those two players (who are now Top 30 prospects in the Astros and Pirates' systems respectively) replaced by twins Sal and Paul Gozzo.

Sal, a freshman, has been really impressive at shortstop. In Alemais's heyday, he was a machine at producing double plays, and that has continued into this year with Tulane far ahead of the rest of the league.

I would cite the pitching staff as the bigger area where we are still trying to see a few guys emerge, especially to fill the Sunday starter role and the bullpen.

TUCB: What’s the outlook looking forward? Should we expect conference Tulane come the end of the year or non-conference Tulane?

FTW: I'm feeling pretty confident that conference Tulane has arrived and isn't going anywhere. The turnaround of the hitting and the consistency of Merrill and France have been huge steps in the right direction, and Tulane has room to get better still.

UConn has a really good club again, and I think this weekend is a big test to see where we stand. And we'll even get three games in this series, unlike last year. It's lit.

TUCB: Who are the probable starters?

FTW: You're going to see Sam Bjorngjeld (making his first "weekend" rotation start on Thursday), Corey Merrill, and JP France.

TUCB: Who are some offensive players to watch out for?

FTW: Hunter Williams, who is known as Big Country, is the power guy. He's hitting .364 to boot with .576 slugging, and he gets it done in the clutch quite a bit. Grant Witherspoon leads off typically and has done a great job in that role. He's hitting .326 on the year. When we can get runners in scoring position for Big Country, things are usually going to go our way.

Hunter Hope has returned to the lineup from an injury and his numbers won't "wow" you on the stat sheet, but he's been excellent since his return last week while hitting .388 with two home runs.

TUCB: Any special relievers?

FTW: We're still working that part out. We are starting to see a few guys find some consistency, especially as a closer. Christian Colletti has three saves now and comes in for the 8th and 9th a lot. He's one of those guys who can have runners on base but find a way out. Brandon Issa has been pretty reliable lately too.

TUCB: Give me your best prediction for the series.

FTW: I respect this UConn club a lot. I also see the Huskies - like every northeastern team in history - have some top MLB prospect left hander ace in their rotation again. I'm telling you, something about northern teams. They always have that guy.

Nevertheless, Tulane is playing its best ball and the hitting has been hot. I think the Green Wave brings more fire power than ECU or Memphis had and we see Tulane win the rubber match for a 2-1 series victory. That's my gut right now.

First pitches on Thursday and Friday at Turchin Stadium are both at 7:30 p.m., while Saturday’s series finale is at 2 p.m. Tim Cate, Wills Montgomerie and Mason Feole will go to the mound, with Cate’s start on Thursday being televised on The American Digital Network.