Thanks to a dominant performance from the bullpen and a moonshot from Anthony Prato, UConn baseball took down Oklahoma State 5-2 in the first game of the regional final. The two teams will meet again tomorrow with a trip to the Super Regionals on the line.
Here’s how it went down:
Prato Pops Off
With UConn clinging to a one-run lead in the bottom of the seventh, the Huskies were in desperate need of insurance runs. However, Oklahoma State’s pitchers silenced the previously hot UConn bats, retiring nine batters in a row at one point.
Michael Chiovitti — only in the game after John Toppa left due to dehydration — blooped a single into right field with two outs to snap the cold streak. Up stepped junior shortstop Anthony Prato with one goal in mind.
“I told Conor [Moriarty] and Paul [Gozzo] when I was going up, I said ‘I’m going to try to hit one out today.’ [Chiovitti] had a good at bat in front of me so I said ‘I figured this is a good time,’” Prato said.
With a 2-0 count, Prato took a ball that hung over the middle and blasted it over the left field fence. He stood at home to admire his shot before tossing his bat and trotting around the bases.
The home run not only gave the Huskies some breathing room, it took the wind out of Oklahoma State’s sails as the ‘Pokes went down lifeless in their final two chances.
Bullpen Buckles Down
While Prato’s bomb will (understandably) make the highlight reel, UConn’s bullpen put together an all-time performance in the win.
The Huskies built an early 3-2 lead but starter Jeff Kersten found himself in trouble in the top of the third inning. He already allowed one run to score and faced runners on the corners with none out. Head coach Jim Penders went to Caleb Wurster, who promptly allowed a single that brought in a second run. But from there, the redshirt freshman lefty buckled down, retiring three batters in a row to preserve the lead.
Wurster gave UConn three innings of scoreless ball before turning the game over to CJ Dandeneau. He recorded five outs before handing the ball to closer Jake Wallace.
From there, it was lights out for the Cowboys. Wallace was untouchable, striking out all seven batters he faced. Oklahoma State never stood a chance.
“I know there’s not a better reliever in the country than Jake Wallace,” Penders said.
As a whole, the Huskies’ bullpen threw seven scoreless innings with 14 strikeouts and just one walk.
“We were going to hand it over to our three-headed monster, we just had to do it a little earlier than we normally do,” Penders said of his plan for the game. “But that’s how we’ve been winning games all year. What we saw in the second game is the formula we’ve had going all year, that’s how we’ve been doing it. Our starting pitching hasn’t been a strength — it’s traditionally a strength — our relief pitching has been a godsend.”
While Wurster kept the lead intact in the third inning, Oklahoma State came close to tying the game. With runners on the first and second with two outs in the third, Wurster struck Carson McCusker out but catcher Thad Phillips couldn’t hang on the ball. Both the runners advanced while McCusker broke for first on the dropped third strike.
Phillips pump faked to first, tricking Christian Funk into breaking for the plate, anticipating Phillip’s throw. The catcher held up and forced Funk into a rundown which led to an easy out for UConn which ended the inning.
“Really heady play, baseball savvy play,” Penders said. “[Phillips] knew he didn’t have an out at first base but he took advantage of the runner coming over to third and did a full arm fake and got him to bite just enough and then made a play. He’s a really good athlete. He’s got very good instincts. I would’ve loved him to just catch the ball and not complicate it but he made a negative into a positive in that instance...We needed to hold it to 3-2 right there.”
If Phillips threw to first, he wouldn’t have gotten McCusker out and the run would’ve scored, thus tying the game. Instead, the senior’s heads-up play saved a run and the Huskies’ didn’t look back.
- UConn reaches the second regional winner-take-all game in program history with the last time coming in 2011 — the only time the Huskies have advanced to a Super Regional.
- Caleb Wurster made his 35th appearance of the season, setting a new program mark. The previous record was 34, set by David Mahoney in 2013.
- Wallace’s seven strikeouts was a season-high for the junior.
Quote of the Day
“We didn’t know who was starting the second game and someone from Oklahoma State asked and I responded ‘Noah Klue.’ The guy got through it.” - Jim Penders
UConn will play Oklahoma State once again, this time in a winner-take-all game with a trip to the Super Regionals in the balance. Penders said he expects a bullpen day on the mound.