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2021 UConn Baseball Preview: Relief Pitchers

Caleb Wurster returns to bolster a deep Huskies bullpen.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

It’s impossible to talk about UConn’s pitching without the context of the season and the adjustments made to account for the COVID-19 pandemic. UConn will be playing a 61-game schedule, with seven more games than their usual spring slate. Conference weekends will consist of a Friday opener, a Saturday doubleheader, and a Sunday game. Pitching depth is already key to success in college baseball, and this unique season will only exacerbate it.

During preseason, the UConn coaching staff has emphasized how essential pitching depth will be, given the packed weekend slates.

“[This season] is gonna have to be more sort of like the way it gets in a regional,” pitching coach Josh MacDonald said in a recent interview. “There’s gonna be weekends like that. We’re on Sunday and we’re thinking ‘Okay, what’s left, what ingredients do we have left here, and just go and work with that.”

UConn will have plenty of bullpen depth to work with, including a variety of veteran returnees, breakout candidates, newcomers, and two-way players ready to fight for their spots.

Top Dogs

The Huskies return their key man in the back end of the bullpen, lefty sidearm specialist Caleb Wurster. The redshirt sophomore erupted onto the scene in 2019 and quickly made a fool out of major teams in college baseball with his funky delivery and tremendous breaking ball. Wurster was a workhorse on the mound, setting the Huskies single-season appearance record (26 games) as the setup man for Jacob Wallace who is now part of the Boston Red Sox organization. Wurster had a 2.66 ERA, recorded 40 strikeouts through 47.1 innings pitched, and held opponents to just a .188 batting average against.

Despite Wurster getting all of the preseason accolades, the most exciting prospect in the Huskies’ bullpen very well might be second-year freshman Andrew Marrero. Pitching coach Josh MacDonald raved about his potential in the preseason and he hasn’t shown anything to the contrary so far in his career. In his first season of college summer ball, he struck out 15 batters in 10.1 innings of work. He continued that pace in the shortened 2020 season, allowing no runs in the 4.2 innings he was on the mound, then kept it up during fall ball as well. That consistency bodes well for him being used in high-leverage situations this spring.

After three years as a starting pitcher, mostly on weekdays games, junior Colby Dunlop will make the full-time transition to the bullpen in 2020 in hopes of refreshing his arm. Dunlop had a few average seasons as a starting pitcher before a semi-disastrous 2020, but the UConn coaching staff thinks that a bullpen role will prevent him from getting burnt out. He’s another guy whose fastball hits in the mid-90s and he pairs it well with a wipeout breaking pitch.

Kenny Haus adds to the immense depth of the UConn bullpen. The junior from Rancho Palos Verdes, California started out as a weekday starter for the Huskies, making a few relief appearances later in the 2019 season. He really exploded onto the scene in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, however. Haus went a whopping six appearances out of the bullpen without allowing a single hit to start the season, giving up just one earned run, four hits, and six walks through 11.1 innings while striking out 10. There are certainly questions to be asked as to whether he can continue his nuclear pace out of the bullpen this year, as he's a ground ball pitcher by trade, but if moving to the bullpen improves his numbers even half as much then he'll be a very solid option for the Huskies in later innings.

Newcomers

A few newcomers to the program impressed in the offseason and will certainly be featured in the upcoming season with plenty of innings to be had thanks to the 61-game schedule.

Brendan O’Donnell is a left-handed freshman from Hull, Massachusetts who might get some action with a fastball in the high 80’s and a good slider. He’ll get some playing time along with another true freshman, Bobby McBride, whose fastball hits in the lower 90’s.

Devin Kirby is the latest to come through the California junior college pipeline established by MacDonald and it looks like he’ll be just as useful as Kenny Haus and Jeff Kersten before him. Kirby was a JUCO All-American at Santa Rosa Junior College and his 14.2 K/9, 1.09 ERA and 17 saves pop off the page. Operating from a low 3/4 right-handed delivery, Kirby features a fastball in the mid-to-upper 80’s, a changeup, and a curveball.

Junior Justin Willis is another transfer who will see some innings this year, bringing more College World Series experience to the team after falling down the pecking order at Vanderbilt.

Two-way Talents

And then you have the wildcards, the great unknowns of the UConn bullpen — the elusive two-way players. MacDonald and head coach Jim Penders haven’t really had any two-way players to speak of in recent years, but in 2020 that could be set to change, especially with the extra games on the schedule and the potential for unforeseen COVID-related issues.

As good as Reggie Crawford is on the offensive side of the ball, he might have even more raw talent as a pitcher. With a fastball in the mid-to-upper 90’s and a curveball with good break, MacDonald identified Crawford as having “the best arm on the team, you know, in terms of just pure stuff.” Crawford is still raw as a pitcher, but his 6’4” frame gives him plenty to work with should the Huskies opt to go that way in his development.

Erik Stock will mainly see appearances in the outfield, but he’s another player that the Huskies can call on to give them some innings on the mound. He pitched out of the bullpen at Old Dominion as a freshman in 2018 and provided two tough innings on the mound for the Huskies in the 2020 season.