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Preview: No. 22 UConn Baseball Begins American Athletic Conference Tournament

The Huskies could get back into serious consideration for hosting a regional with a deep run in Clearwater, Florida.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

No. 22 UConn baseball likely locked up an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament when it took two of three games from No. 10 ECU over the weekend. The Huskies played their fifth rubber game of the season in the second half of Friday’s doubleheader, taking their fourth win.

Now that the regular season is complete and Jim Penders’ squad knows they will be playing into June for the third time in six years, their focus turns to attempting to get back into the hosting discussion with a strong performance at the American Athletic Conference tournament in Clearwater, Florida.

UConn, which is ranked No. 19 in the RPI as of Sunday, is 13-8 against the RPI top-50, including a 4-3 mark against the top 25. Those top-50 wins are tied for 12th in the country, and the Huskies have the best winning percentage amongst teams ranked No. 13-20 in the RPI, the teams they are likely going to be competing against for the final few top-16 seeds.

Every team on their side of the bracket in USF (No. 22), Cincinnati (No. 86) and Wichita State (No. 49), as with every team on the other side, are solidly in the top-100, so there are no RPI-killers in Clearwater, Florida this year due to Wichita State’s entrance into the league.

Junior captain Zac Susi (.330 AVG/.401 OBP/.401 SLG) leads the team in batting average as well as on-base percentage and takes 40-game reached-base streak into postseason play. The last time he was held off the base paths was March 2 at North Florida, the only game he did not reach safely besides Opening Day against Kennesaw State.

He is one of six regulars with a batting average above .275, including .300 hitters Michael Woodworth (.312/.370/.405) and Troy Stefanski (.306/.349/.429).

On the mound, The American pitcher of the year candidate Mason Feole (8-1, 2.49 ERA) looks to lead a starting rotation that includes Chase Gardner (4-2, 3.45) and Jeff Kersten (4-3, 4.34) behind him.

Colby Dunlop (2-1, 5.27) has emerged as a midweek starter since Tim Cate’s injury, and since as he was held out of action over the weekend, could pitch the opener in Clearwater. With the double elimination format, teams must play at least four games and could get as many as six in to win the conference title.

Here’s a look at each of the three teams on the same side of the bracket.

Cincinnati

The Huskies and Bearcats will open their tournaments against each other at approximately 3 p.m. on Wednesday. The two squads played April 20-22 in Ohio and UConn took the final two games of that series after they lost the opener in which Mason Feole and JT Perez each pitched complete games in a 1-0 final.

Perez (6-3, 2.68) is Cincinnati’s only starter with an ERA below 3.50 and after four innings and 80 pitches on Thursday against USF, head coach Scott Googins decided that was enough for the left-handed senior. With that kind of workload, it’s likely he will be the man on the mound for the Bearcats on Wednesday.

Like its pitching staff, Cincinnati relies on a few strong offensive options. Kyle Mottice (.330/.433/.425) is the team’s only hitter above .300 and is the best Bearcat at getting on base. Manny Rodriguez (.296/.376/.598) leads the team with 30 extra-base hits and is the only hitter with more than 20.

USF

The Bulls are the No. 2 seed in the tournament and should they match a result with UConn against Wichita State, they would meet on Thursday at either 11 a.m. in an elimination game or at 7 p.m. for the right to have Friday off.

USF hosted and took two of three games from the Huskies during conference play’s opening weekend from March 23-25. Potential first-round pick Shane McClanahan had yet to allow an earned run on the year but in the second inning of Friday’s game, UConn tagged the redshirt sophomore for six runs, including a grand slam from Anthony Prato, to propel them to the team’s lone win.

With Peter Strzelecki (8-3, 3.79) a solid option against Wichita State in their tournament opener, McClanahan (5-6, 3.53) might be held to face UConn, but it will likely be one of those two.

The Bulls are more than capable offensively, with David Villar (.380/.474/.684) sitting second in the conference in batting average as one of five USF hitters above .300 in batting average. The team’s batting average and slugging percentage are both in the top 30 in Division I.

Wichita State

The final team UConn will have to contend with in order to make Sunday’s final is Wichita State. The Huskies won two of three from the newest team in The American from April 13-15, sweeping Friday’s doubleheader.

Like the Bulls, the Shockers are offense-first, with four regulars hitting above .300. As a team, they hit .297. Alec Bohm (.332/.433/.616) is just behind Luke Ritter (.341/.419/.493) for the team lead in batting average and was named a semifinalist for the Dick Howser Trophy, the NCBWA’s player of the year award.

Liam Eddy (7-3, 3.39) is a candidate to start in a potential Game 2 against UConn despite pitching out of the bullpen over the weekend. He delivered five innings of relief after Alex Segal pitched only 2/3 of an inning in his second start of the season on Friday.

He is joined by Preston Snavely (4-1, 5.18) and potential Game 1 starter Codi Heuer (6-5, 4.12) as the likely trio to begin a game against the Huskies.

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Should UConn get all the way to the final, they would face one of Houston, No. 15 ECU, UCF or Tulane for the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

UConn (32-18-1) begins The American tournament against Cincinnati on Wednesday at 3 p.m. at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Florida.