It was a bitter way to end UConn baseball’s magical 2018 season. The final out came earlier in the tournament than many expected — dreams of a Super Regional or even forcing a win-or-go-home game on Monday were dashed when they fell 9-6 to Washington.
But few could have predicted the way Jim Penders’ team fell, as the Huskies made numerous uncharacteristic, back-breaking mistakes over and over again. They ran into five outs on the base paths and made four errors in the field — including two from typically lights-out shortstop Anthony Prato.
“Our infield defense kind of fell apart,” Penders said. “We haven’t seen that all year and even when the ball was hit at us, we weren’t making plays.”
Even with all the miscues, UConn stayed in the game and had a chance to get out of a jam in the eighth on a groundball to second baseman Michael Woodworth, but the California native misplayed it and got no one out instead of turning a double play. Washington made them pay with a bases-clearing double that ended up being the death-kneel.
“We made too many mistakes to beat a quality team, that’s the reality,” Penders said. “We helped them with way too many mistakes.”
All tournament, the eighth inning killed the Huskies. The game prior, UConn took a three-run lead late against Coastal Carolina before giving it away with a slew of walks. In the opener against Washington, the game was tight before a “comedy of errors” cost UConn five runs and pushed them to the losers bracket.
“In the eighth inning I’m not sure who was wearing the UConn jerseys but it certainly didn’t look like us,” Penders said after their first game, though it certainly resonates after the last two games.
Once the Huskies entered the losers bracket, the task became nearly impossible. Even though UConn reached the Super Regionals in 2011 after an opening-game loss, it was too much for them to overcome in Conway. Not only did they have to play an extra game compared to Washington, but UConn had to play their games at noon instead of five, meaning they were subject to the brutal southern sun combined with the suffocating heat and humidity.
“I think we just ran out of gas. The eighth inning today didn’t beat us, I felt like the eighth inning on Friday contributed to the loss today,” Penders said. “We had to play those games in the heat and humidity and we just didn’t have enough in the tank to finish out the deal today.”
As difficult an end it was for UConn, two poor games against the same team shouldn’t outweigh everything else the Huskies did this year.
Whatever was thrown at them — whether it was spending 41 of 69 days on the road, getting stuck in Wichita, Kansas because of weather issues, or having to play a game at 8:30 in the morning in sub-freezing temperatures — the 2018 squad took everything in stride and still performed well enough to be in the conversation to host a regional.
“These kids, showing the resilience and fight — and they showed it up until the last out,” Penders said. “I believed we were going to win the game because they’ve done that all year. They work hard for one another, they work hard for themselves.
“Often times, the coaches would look at each other like, ‘How are they going to do it today?’ and more often than not they did it.”
Although they didn’t end up hosting (though they should’ve), simply being in contention meant UConn’s name got brought up consistently in the national picture. The team set the foundation for the Huskies’ to make the step from being a solid northeast team to a perennial NCAA Tournament team that can threaten to reach the College World Series.
“People know what UConn baseball is. They have a better idea of what we deal with and how we’re going to fight through it,” Penders said. “Getting here, I think it’s five times in nine years, being able to get to another regional final, we haven’t done that in awhile. It’s a good step forward. Those guys should be really proud of that.”
Even though they never brought home any hardware, anyone who even spent even a second watching this year’s team knew they were something special.
“I told them I’ve never been more honored to be the UConn baseball coach than I am after this season because these guys took us on a ride,” Penders said. “I’m so proud of them and I hope they know.”