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Notebook: First game in Elliot Ballpark the product of nearly 20 years of Jim Penders’ hard work

Plus, some takeaways from UConn’s weekend series against St. Joe’s and their home opener against Central.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Jim Penders had to rub his eyes and do a double-take when he glanced up into the brand-new grandstands of Elliot Ballpark before coaching his first game at the Huskies’ new home. There sat Jim Calhoun, the UConn coaching legend and three-time national champion in men’s basketball, ready to take in a full game of Hook C baseball.

“I almost lost it. You know, I’m supposed to be at his games, so that was a real role reversal,” Penders said after his squad took care of business against Central Connecticut State. “That really kind of shook me actually, you know, I [went up and] told him what he meant to me and to our program.”

It was just one surreal moment in a day full of them for Penders, as the Huskies completed a project nearly 20 years in the making. It started out the night before when UConn’s head coach couldn’t sleep — “It was like the night before Christmas when you’re a kid, that’s really how it felt.”

When morning finally came, he spent time talking with Doug Elliot about how it all came to be, but not before “getting choked up a few times.”

“We were reminiscing about our first meeting on the subject with probably about a dozen Dugout Club members in the Travelers Tower on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2003,” Penders said. “We both were wondering at times if this was really going to get done.”

Penders’ list of people to thank after the game was exhaustive. Former president Susan Herbst got a shoutout, along with Dave Benedict, former board chairman Larry McHugh, along with several current and former board members. It took a village to make the stadium a reality, and now the team and their fans can enjoy it.

In its finished form, the new Elliot Ballpark is a sight to behold. It has an all-turf field, light towers that Penders can control with his phone, a batter’s eye adorned with the UConn logo, and a brand-new scoreboard that Penders couldn’t keep his eyes off of after putting in the request that led to the scoreboard upgrade.

“I soaked it all up, I dealt with my emotion in the morning, [and] got choked up a couple times,” Penders said. “And then it was time to go manage a baseball game.”

Pat Gallagher makes bid for weekend starter spot

UConn’s starting pitching has been inconsistent in 2021, to say the least. Ben Casparius has been the steady hand, performing as advertised on Friday nights with a 3.34 ERA and a .178 batting average against. Austin Peterson (2-1, 3.04 ERA) has emerged as a secondary option on Sunday afternoons, but past that, the situation has been far from ideal.

Outside of Peterson and Casparius, three different pitchers — Pat Gallagher, Joe Simeone, and Jimmy Wang — are real candidates to fill the remaining two spots, but none of them have separated themselves from the pack. All of them have 6.00+ ERAs and are allowing opponents at least a .260 batting average.

Gallagher is likely to have gained some favor with the coaches after his 5.0 inning, nine strikeout shutout performance against Central Connecticut State, but his bid for a spot in the weekend rotation began in earnest on March 13 against Texas Tech, when he relieved a struggling Joe Simeone and threw 3.0 innings of scoreless ball against a fearsome Red Raiders lineup.

After a few uneven performances, his outings against Central and Texas Tech put him in prime position to move into a weekend starting role.

“He’s certainly a candidate for that, and definitely a guy that we’re going to consider,” Penders said. “I think he needs to have another good outing or two and then he would be positioned to potentially slide into game three or game four.”

Gallagher’s next opportunity to start could come against Boston College on Tuesday, March 30. The Eagles will be the Huskies’ toughest challenge remaining this year as they’ve started the season 12-7 and are ranked No. 18 in RPI with impressive series wins over Duke and Auburn.

Odds and ends

  • Multiple firsts were bound to happen on Tuesday during the debut of Elliot Ballpark. Erik Stock recorded the first UConn hit in the new stadium, while Kyler Fedko scored the first run, and Pat Gallagher recorded the first strikeout.
  • Patrick Winkel is close to getting back behind the plate again as he continues to recover from a hamstring strain that has kept him from getting down in a stance for the past few games, according to Penders.
  • UConn’s past opponents had a mixed bag of results this weekend. Virginia lost a series to Pittsburgh, Southern Mississippi swept Missouri State before capping off their week with a win over No. 24 Alabama, Coastal Carolina won their series against West Virginia, and Texas Tech earned a series victory over Oklahoma State.