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Preview: No. 21 UConn baseball returns to Dunkin’ Donuts Park against Houston

This is a big series in the Huskies’ quest for the regular season conference title.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

As always in the American Athletic Conference, things are coming down to the wire in the baseball standings. Three teams are a game-and-a-half behind conference leader Houston, with Cincinnati and UCF nipping at their heels. Six teams are within three games of each other for the regular season title with two weekends to go.

American Athletic Conference Baseball Standings

Team Record Games Back RPI (NCAA- 5/10)
Team Record Games Back RPI (NCAA- 5/10)
Houston 14-7 --- 62
USF 11-7 1 1/2 25
UConn 11-7 1 1/2 16
East Carolina 11-7 1 1/2 14
Cincinnati 10-8 2 1/2 101
UCF 11-10 3 26
Tulane 7-11 5 1/2 81
Wichita State 6-12 6 1/2 27
Memphis 3-15 9 1/2 180

Tulane, Wichita State and Memphis are battling for the final two spots in the conference tournament. The Green Wave and Tigers are playing this weekend in New Orleans and should Tulane take two out of three, they would clinch a spot in Clearwater.

No. 21 UConn baseball is one of the hottest teams in the conference and after wins against Sacred Heart and Northeastern, the Huskies are welcoming the top team in the standings to their home away from home for the first two games of a pivotal three-game set.

Like UConn, the Cougars have been surging, sitting in the 170s in the RPI just six weeks ago when conference play began.

Now, with an RPI of 62 and six more games against top-100 teams before the conference tournament, Houston may be able to sneak into an at-large bid.

Offensively, the Cougars have been getting it done with a lot of different bodies. Six players have played more than 40 of their 48 games and other than those six, only one position player has more than 25 starts.

The only regular with a batting average of more than .300 is Jared Triolo (.354 AVG/.421 OBP/.469 SLG), who leads the six qualifiers in all three slash line categories. Joe Davis (.285/.361/.413) leads the Cougars with four home runs.

The team holds a slash line of .251/.350/.337, all of which sit towards the bottom of the 297 teams in Division I.

That should give the edge to a strong UConn pitching staff.

Tim Cate (3-4, 3.70 ERA) has not pitched since March 29 but will throw off a mound to live hitters on Friday and could potentially be used in relief on Sunday, but for now, it will be Mason Feole (7-1, 2.44) in Game 1 of Friday’s doubleheader, followed by Jeff Kersten (4-1, 3.52) in Game 2 and Chase Gardner (3-2, 3.83) on Sunday.

The Huskies’ staff holds a .250 BAA and a 3.95 ERA (68th). They strike out 9.6 batters per nine innings (19th) and walk 4.2 batters per nine innings (149th). Closer PJ Poulin moved into a tie for second in program history with 13 saves this year on Wednesday.

As reliable as UConn’s pitching is, Houston’s is arguably more impressive. Trey Cumbie (5-3, 3.68) will go on Friday, with Aaron Fletcher (5-2, 1.77) pitching on Saturday. Sunday’s starter is yet to be announced.

The Cougars’ team ERA is 3.45 (31st) with a .229 BAA. They strike out 8.5 batters per nine innings (88th) and walk 3.4 batters per nine innings (43rd).

They will be facing a UConn offense that owns a .284/.361/.405 slash line, which is 75th, 160th and 113th in the country.

Catcher Zac Susi (.316/.399/.387) has been leading the charge with a 33-game reached base streak. He’s one of three Huskies hitting above .310, including right fielder Troy Stefanski (.318/.351/.451) and shortstop Anthony Prato (.312/.373/.387). Seven of their regulars hit above .285.

UConn and Houston play at Dunkin’ Donuts Park in Hartford for a doubleheader beginning at 3:05 p.m. and 7:05 p.m. on Friday. The series shifts to J.O. Christian Field on Sunday at 11 a.m. Both games of Friday’s twin-bill will be on ESPN3.