With two down in the eighth inning of a 4-4 game between No. 21 UConn and Houston, left fielder John Toppa hit a chopper up the middle as Anthony Nucerino took his lead off second base. The junior captain beat out Cooper Coldiron’s throw from shortstop, and Lael Lockart saw Nucerino rounding third and headed home.
The redshirt freshman appeared to be out by 15-20 feet, but he managed to eke his way around Kyle Lovelace’s tag to help lead the Huskies to a 6-4 win over the Cougars on Mother’s Day.
“I’m sending him there and taking a chance with two outs,” head coach Jim Penders said. “He was out but he had a great slide and that was huge.”
After Friday’s doubleheader sweep, the players held their postgame huddle after the coaches departed and discussed heading in the same direction.
It worked. If either of Toppa or Nucerino doesn’t run all out, that run does not score and the inning ends tied.
“That’s something that the coaches preach, is alway go 110 percent,” Toppa said. “Coach says when you get out the box you go like it’s an inside-the-park home run.”
The drama was not over, as after Jared Triolo worked a 12-pitch walk against PJ Poulin, the go-ahead run came to the plate with just one out in Joe Davis, he of four extra-base hits in the nightcap of Friday’s twin-bill.
Poulin induced a pop out to Davis and got Tyler Bielamowicz to ground out to ensure that his team would not be swept for the first time this year.
“[Triolo] has discipline to stay off that,” Penders said. “It was down just enough, it just missed.”
It was not a contest that became close late. UConn took the lead three times prior to the eighth and each time, the Cougars either tied it or earned a lead of their own by the next time the half inning was through.
“It was punch, counter-punch,” Penders said. “Every time we hit, it seemed like we had an answer.”
UConn grabbed the lead in the second via first baseman Chris Winkel’s bloop single and in the fourth courtesy of second baseman Michael Woodworth’s liner into right.
In the third, Houston punched back when Chase Gardner fumbled Bielamowicz’ bunt and then grabbed a pair in the fifth after Grayson Padgett, who would homer to re-tie the game at 4-4 in the seventh, and Triolo each singled.
A double by third baseman Conor Moriarty in the fifth and a leadoff single by center fielder Troy Stefanski, each led to two-out RBI to even the game, followed by a UConn lead.
“We got four two-out RBI,” Penders said. “That was the final frontier for us, getting RBI with two outs.”
Gardner struggled through his 3 2/3 innings, continually spiking balls in the dirt and forcing Zac Susi to make stop after stop to prevent balls from getting to the backstop.
“He was behind,” Penders said. “Their guy was 0-1, our guy was 1-0.”
He allowed one unearned run on three hits in his outing, but walked four Cougars against one strikeout.
UConn (20-16-1, 12-9) finishes up non-conference action against Rhode Island on the road on Tuesday. First pitch is at 3:30 p.m.