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Preview: UConn baseball at No. 16 Virginia

The Hook C crew kicks off their 2021 season with a matchup against the ACC giants.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

How to watch/listen

When: February 19, 3 p.m.

February 20, 1 p.m.

February 21, 1 p.m.

Where: Charlottesville, Virginia

TV/Streaming: ACC Network Extra

Radio: WHUS Radio, 91.7 FM

UConn baseball will start its season on Friday at 3 p.m. against the Virginia Cavaliers, the 16-ranked team in the country. They’ll have to bus eight hours to Charlottesville through a winter storm that’s wreaked havoc across half the country, kicking off a season that will be anything but predictable.

But for head coach Jim Penders? He couldn’t be more excited.

“I’ve never looked forward to a season as much as I’ve looked forward to this one. It’s been the longest off-season of my life,” Penders said on a video call with the media before the series. “The lack of competition has been a strain along with a lot of other things in regards to COVID and our current situation, we’re just chomping at the bit to get going and see a different uniform.”

The first team in a different uniform the Huskies will face is Virginia. Ranked No. 5 in the Baseball America preseason poll and No. 16 in the D1Baseball version, Virginia is a perennial power in the ACC and has been picked to finish second in their division in the conference preseason poll.

Penders will face off against legendary head coach Brian O’Connor, who took over the Cavaliers in 2003 and ushered in the greatest era in the program’s history. He has a .709 win percentage as head coach and 14 of the school’s 17 NCAA tournament appearances have come during his time at the school. He has two conference tournament titles and a national championship in 2015 under his belt. Recently, the Cavaliers have been on a tournament drought and haven’t made it since 2017.

Virginia was putting together a great season in 2020 — even by its own standards — before it was shut down due to COVID. The Cavaliers were 14-4 record with wins over Oklahoma, Dartmouth, Richmond and a big conference series victory against North Carolina State.

Virginia will be looking for more of the same to start off their 2021 season, with little delay until its first conference games, which start next weekend. It only gets three games against UConn and a midweek game against VMI before its first conference series of the year, against North Carolina.

What to watch for

When UConn is at the plate

UConn’s lineup is deep, but will they be able to survive getting thrown into the fire against potentially the best rotation in the ACC? Virginia’s rotation had a 3.39 ERA and 199 strikeouts in 162 innings before the season shut down in 2020 and some of the players who were set to leave in the summer received an extra year of eligibility and decided to return.

One of those players is left-handed pitcher Andrew Abbott, who you can expect to see starting on Friday afternoon. Virginia leaned on him out of the bullpen for his first three years at the school and he made the role his own with a 3.24 career ERA through 108.1 innings pitched. Now, the Virginia staff thinks Abbott can successfully transition to ace status in 2021. His fastball sits in the mid-90’s but his true out-pitch is his curveball, which has tremendous horizontal movement and looks more like a slider at times.

Griff McGarry was unbelievable as the Cavaliers’ Friday starter in 2020, which speaks to how much the staff believes in Abbott as a starter. He had a 1.35 ERA and a .079 batting average against in 20 innings, striking out 31. The Huskies will have to take advantage of his arms, which is a little wild and off the mark at times. Through 127 career innings pitched, McGarry has issued 111 walks.

Mike Vasil had the least success of the three in 2020 but still managed a 2.45 ERA and a 9.04 K/9 ratio. This weekend might also see the Huskies face Nate Savino, Virginia’s hottest young prospect. He chose to enroll early last year, forgoing the draft where some had him as a first-round prospect. If UConn does see him out of the bullpen, it’ll face a fastball that runs in the mid-90's, a wipeout slider and a changeup.

When UConn’s in the field

Ben Casparius’ first pitch in a UConn uniform will presumably come on Friday, so that’s not something you want to miss. The coaching staff heaped praise on him during the preseason, calling him one of the most talented pitchers to come through Storrs in a long time.

Casparius vs. Chris Newell will be, hands down, the matchup to watch this weekend. Newell is a sophomore left fielder with a list of accolades a mile long, most recently named preseason All-American by the College Baseball Newspaper and He had a nuclear start to 2020 with a .407 average, .545 on-base percentage and .729 slugging percentage that rocketed him to National Player of the Year consideration.

Another name to watch out for in the is slugging third baseman Zack Gelof, who also earned preseason All-American status after leading the ACC in in total bases (47), slugging percentage (.746) and runs scored (24).

In terms of the Huskies in the field, keep an eye out for the position battles currently ongoing on the left side of the infield and in left field. Whoever ends up starting in those positions has a good chance to make a good impression against a high-caliber opponent, and lock down the starting spot for the rest of the season.

Projected Starters:

Friday: Ben Casparius vs. Andrew Abbott

Saturday: Joe Simeone vs. Griff McGarry

Sunday: Jimmy Wang vs. Mike Vasil

Projected Lineup:

Zach Bushling, 3B

Reggie Crawford, 1B

Patrick Winkel, C

Kyler Fedko, RF

Ciaran Devenney, DH

Christian Fedko, 2B

Erik Stock, LF

Chris Winkel, CF

Andy Hague, SS