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UConn Baseball Weekend Preview: No. 23 USF

The Huskies have a pivotal home series with the conference-leading Bulls as the season nears its end.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn Baseball has hit a slide in conference play. After starting 6-0 in American Athletic Conference games, the Huskies have gone 4-8 over their last three series, struggling on the road last weekend against No. 28 Houston, needing a win in game three on Sunday to prevent a sweep.

With two weekends to go, this is how the standings look in The American.

AAC Standings

Team Record Games Back RPI (NCAA- 5/11) Remaining Series
Team Record Games Back RPI (NCAA- 5/11) Remaining Series
USF 12-6 --- 18 @UConn, UCF
UCF 11-7 1 30 @Cincy, @USF
Houston 11-7 1 29 @Tulane, Cincy
Tulane 10-8 2 82 Houston, @Memphis
UConn 10-8 2 46 USF, ECU
Cincinnati 8-10 4 83 UCF, @Houston
Memphis 6-12 6 92 @ECU, Tulane
East Carolina 4-14 8 84 Memphis, @UConn

UConn is currently tied for fourth place with Tulane, but only two games back of the conference leaders and their opponent this weekend, the No. 23 USF Bulls.

The Bulls are coming off a win on the road against No. 6 Florida and are winners of seven straight contests.

This year’s squad is much improved from last year’s. USF struggled throughout 2016, suffering a rash of injuries and going 8-16 in conference play, including being swept by UConn at home.

This year, the Bulls are at full strength and despite losing their two best pitchers to the MLB Draft in Brandon Lawson and Tommy Eveld, they are gunning for a Regional hosting bid.

Two pieces of their weekend rotation were forced to redshirt in 2016 due to injury and have been putting up good numbers to augment Phoenix Sanders (5-2, 2.99 ERA).

Peter Strzelecki (2-2, 2.62) started USF’s lone shutout this year and while he does not have the elite strikeout totals of the Bulls’ other starters, he is still effective. He has a BAA of .231 and leads the starting rotation in ERA.

Shane McClanahan (4-1, 3.22) also missed last season and has been dominant. He has a BAA of .183 and leads the team in strikeouts (91).

Joe Cavallaro (4-1, 1.75) made 14 starts in 2016 and struggled. With McClanahan and Strzelecki’s returns, he has made 25 appearances out of the bullpen and flourished, with a .199 BAA and has notched four saves.

While the injuries were limited to the pitching staff, multiple players have taken a big step forward offensively.

Five Bulls who saw significant time last year increased their batting average by more than 60 points, including Duke Stunkel (.369 AVG/.455 OBP/.468 SLG). All three of his slash line categories are 100 points higher than 2016’s totals.

Seven USF hitters raised their slugging percentage by more than 70 points and two made it 150 points higher. Kevin Merrell (.403/.489/.623) raised his 222 points.

Merrell hit .320 last year and led the team in batting average. He leads the team again, but now there are three players hitting higher than .350.

The Bulls did not leave the state of Florida until conference play and have ventured out only twice, to play Tulane and Cincinnati, but this team is for real. If they win The AAC Tournament, they will be in the conversation to host a Regional. A win in this series would be huge for UConn.

The series will begin at J.O. Christian Field with a doubleheader on Friday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. The finale will take place on Saturday at 1 p.m.