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Preview: UConn baseball at Southern Mississippi

The Huskies head south for a winnable weekend series with the Golden Eagles.

@UConnBSB/Twitter

How to watch

When:

5 p.m., Friday, February 26

2 p.m., Saturday, February 27

12 p.m., Sunday, February 28

Where: Pete Taylor Park, Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Streaming: C-USA TV

Radio: FM 91.7 WHUS

Fresh off a tough and bitterly-fought opening series against No. 12 Virginia, UConn baseball will get no respite in one of the hardest non-conference schedules in the country as they head to Hattiesburg to take on Southern Mississippi for a three-game set.

The Huskies have had to beef out their non-conference schedule even more than recent years to boost their hopes of making the NCAA tournament, given the relative weakness of the Big East in baseball compared to the AAC, and even with Texas Tech and Coastal Carolina on the horizon, Southern Miss is not to be overlooked.

Picked with Florida Atlantic to finish first in the Conference USA preseason poll, the Golden Eagles have been in and around the NCAA tournament since 2016. They won the Conference USA tournament in 2019, beating Florida Atlantic in the final before getting one of the toughest first-round draws in any NCAA-sanctioned sport: the Baton Rouge regional with LSU, Arizona State, and Stony Brook, where they were eliminated by the hosts.

Southern Miss was well on their way to another tournament appearance in 2020 before the season was cut short. They were 12-4 after facing a less-than-intimidating preseason schedule, with a sweep of McNeese State to open the season and series wins over both Central Arkansas and Little Rock.

The strength of Southern Miss lies with its pitching staff. Two-thirds of their weekend rotation are conference All-Americans, but both missed the first weekend of games. Senior Walker Powell, a towering righty who had a 2.72 ERA in 2019, was suspended for a team violation in the fall, and sophomore Gabe Shepard has been dealing with a shoulder injury. Shepard might have the best arsenal of pitches on the entire staff and only the shortened 2020 draft kept him from leaving for the majors.

That was no problem for the Golden Eagles on opening night, however. Their Friday starter ended up being Hunter Stanley, the preseason conference reliever of the year who usually works out of the bullpen. Another bullpen option is redshirt sophomore Ryan Och who is a left-handed hurler with good stuff.

Southern Miss’s strength lies in their pitching staff, but their lineup shouldn’t be overlooked. Outfielder Slade Wilks is a draft-eligible sophomore who plays left field and was the No. 23 draft prospect in the high school class of 2019, according to Perfect Game USA. Slugger Chris Sargent got off a hot start in 2021, performing as advertised with four hits in his first games after his transfer from the junior college ranks, where he led the team in average and homers in the fall. Sophomore Charlie Fisher typically bats in the DH spot, with an impressive .322/.400/.542 line in 2020.

What to watch for

When UConn is at the plate

UConn’s bats were quiet on Saturday and Sunday in the Virginia series, with a combined three runs in those two games. They sprung to life on Saturday in a marathon 10-9 win, but that was aided by plenty of free passes given out by the Virginia pitching staff, who had an uncharacteristically tough time finding the strike zone. The Huskies had good at-bats by the boatload the entire weekend, which suggests that Saturday’s game was more indicative of what we’ll see from them against Southern Miss and bodes well for the rest of the season, but they’ll have to prove that first. Plenty of Huskies started off slow and have a chance to bounce back: Chris Winkel, Ciaran Devenney, and Kevin Ferrer have yet to record their first hit of the season and will look to rectify that as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, we’ll see if Christian Fedko, Chris Brown, and Reggie Crawford can continue their hot starts to the year. Fedko was the clutch hero on Saturday, as he often is for this team. The fourth hit in Fedko’s first career four-hit game came as an RBI single that broke a 7-7 tie in the bottom of the ninth and his brother Kyler finished off the win with a go-ahead RBI single of his own.

Chris Brown had a dream debut weekend to his UConn baseball career, starting all three games at third base and going 3-for-11 with a team-high four RBI while looking extremely confident at the plate and in the field. Similarly, Reggie Crawford looked relaxed in his second year in college baseball, going 3-for-11 with the Huskies’ first home run of the year and several tough scoops at first base.

When they’re on the mound

Who will start on Sunday? For the rubber match of the Virginia series, all three candidates for the Sunday spot got a shot. Jimmy Wang started the day and was still shaking off the rust after an illness-and-injury-filled offseason, posting 1.2 innings and allowing two earned runs. Purdue transfer Austin Peterson came in and immediately settled things down, going 3.2 innings while working calm under pressure and controlling the game, despite giving up five hits. Freshman Pat Gallagher also got a shot to impress, although it was more of a spot role out of the bullpen. The UConn coaching staff might keep their faith in Wang, or hand the start to Peterson and save Wang for a cameo out of the bullpen.

Just how good can Casparius get this season? As of right now, Casparius needs no introduction to UConn fans. He mostly shut down a regional host-caliber Virginia lineup, his fastball was fizzing in — all three versions of it — and his breaking pitches were all but unhittable due to their impressive horizontal movement. There’s no reason why he won’t be able to keep this up all season and may find he’s even better suited to the Friday starter role, something he hasn’t had to do until this year.

Projected Lineup

Zach Bushling, SS

Erik Stock, LF

Pat Winkel, C

Kyler Fedko, RF

Reggie Crawford, 1B

Christian Fedko, 2B

Chris Winkel, CF

Kevin Ferrer, DH

Chris Brown, 3B

Projected Starters

Friday : RHP Ben Casparius, Jr. (0-1, 3.18 ERA) vs. RHP Hunter Stanley, Sr. (1-0, 0.00 ERA)

Saturday: RHP Joe Simeone, Jr. (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. RHP Ben Ethridge, Fr. (0-0, 1.59 ERA)

Sunday: RHP Austin Peterson, Fr. (0-0, 2.45 ERA) vs. RHP Walker Powell, Sr. (0-0, 0.00 ERA)