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Preview: UConn baseball opens conference play with USF

Another weekend, another marquee pitching matchup for the Huskies.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Just after UConn baseball returned to the Northeast for the first time with a series win against St. John’s over the weekend and a come-from-behind extra-inning victory over CCSU, they go back on the road and open conference play this weekend against USF.

UConn is looking for another series win over the Bulls. The Huskies are 5-1 in their last two series against USF.

Center fielder Troy Stefanski (.349 AVG/.373 OBP/.540 SLG) has a five-game hitting streak and leads qualifiers in batting average. Catcher Zac Susi (.333/.385/.367) missed two games, but Thad Phillips (.364/.417/.545) picked up the slack, hitting 4-for-8 with a home run, which may have been good enough to force his way into this weekend’s lineup.

That trio head into conference play on a three-game winning streak against the Bulls.

USF (16-6) is on a nine-game winning streak after weekend sweeps of Central Michigan and Army as well as midweek wins against Jacksonville, Florida Gulf Coast and North Florida.

Offensively, they are led by David Villar (.392/.500/.684) who leads the Bulls in batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, doubles and RBI. In the American Athletic Conference, he is third in batting average and slugging percentage and leads the conference in doubles.

Other threats with the bat include Coco Montes (.352/.452/.451) and Joe Genord (.345/.413/.709), who has four home runs in just 55 at-bats.

As a team, USF slashes .301/.390/.474, which is 24th, 45th and 19th nationally out of 297 teams.

They will be contending with Tim Cate (1-4, 4.85 ERA), Mason Feole (3-0, 3.45) and Chase Gardner (1-0, 4.84) on the mound as projected UConn starters.

As a staff, the Huskies allow batters to hit .261 against them and own a 4.20 ERA (103rd). They strike out 9.2 batters per nine innings (60th) and walk 4.8 batters per nine (213th), which is almost a full walk more than two weeks ago.

To counter Cate, Feole and Gardner, the Bulls will send Shane McClanahan (3-1, 0.00), Peter Strzelecki (3-1, 3.86) and Collin Sullivan (1-0, 3.38) to toe the rubber for the home side.

McClanahan is in discussion to be the No. 1 overall pick in June’s MLB Draft, which tends to happen when you are the only qualifier in NCAA to yet to allow an earned run, having pitched 30 2/3 innings with only three unearned runs crossing the plate. He also leads the nation with 56 strikeouts.

Though RPI is imperfect this early in the year, McClanahan has not pitched against the toughest schedule, going up against North Carolina (sixth), Fordham (133rd), Columbia (166th), Central Michigan (275th) and Army (139th). His stats, no matter who he faced, are incredibly impressive.

He will be followed up by Strzelecki, who would be an ace on a lot of teams with a .245 BAA and has 40 strikeouts in 28 innings. He has allowed only four extra-base hits this year.

Sullivan will pitch in Sunday’s finale. He pitched the first three weekends but last appeared against Jacksonville on March 14. He has only thrown 18 innings across four starts and struggles with control, walking nine.

Staff-wide, the Bulls are allowing hitters to hit just .228 and have a 2.71 ERA (16th). They strike out 10.4 batters per nine innings (12th) and walk just 3.8 batters per nine (93rd).

The Huskies’ offense have a solid chance of elevating McClanahan’s ERA, with a slash line of .261/.330/.393, which is 162nd, 247th and 123rd, respectively.

UConn already made a strong statement with the road series win against their only equal in the Northeast in St. John’s and now faces more elite pitching in USF. Beginning conference play with a series win on the road against one of the hottest teams in the country would mean this team can play with anyone.

Friday’s first pitch at USF Baseball Stadium is at 7 p.m. on the American Digital Network. Saturday is at 6:30 p.m. and the series will finish on Sunday at 1 p.m., with both games on Facebook Live.