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Big East Tournament Preview: UConn baseball opens against Xavier

UConn is one of the hottest teams in the country headed into the postseason. They’re the top seed in this weekend’s Big East Tournament.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

After winning the Big East regular-season title, UConn baseball is most likely an NCAA Tournament team.

That statement didn’t seem realistic on March 15, when the Huskies, leading 4-2 heading into the seventh inning stretch against then-No. 7 Texas Tech and looking to stave off a sweep, gave up four runs before eventually falling in extra innings. The Huskies stood at 4-10 with an RPI in the 80s after series losses on the road to Virginia and Southern Miss as well as the aforementioned Red Raiders, in addition to a 2-2 weekend in the Baseball at the Beach Tournament.

Since March 15, Jim Penders’ squad has a 26-6 record and now is ranked 20th in the RPI with a 30-16 record.

The team also owns the No. 1 seed in the Big East Tournament, which starts Thursday. While the Huskies are not guaranteed an NCAA Tournament spot, partially due to their 2-8 record against teams in the top 50 of the RPI, they could use a win or two in Mason, Ohio to secure a bid. They’re ultimately in very good shape to make the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive year, and fifth time in six years.

Xavier

UConn will open against Xavier (25-24, 15-11 Big East) in the nightcap on Thursday at 6:30 p.m., or approximately 45 minutes after the end of the tournament opener. The Huskies will send Austin Peterson (6-1, 2.75 ERA) to the mound while the Musketeers will likely counter with Nick Zwack (6-4, 2.70).

The two teams played a four-game series in Cincinnati April 25-27 and it was the first action UConn had after its 15-day pause due to positive COVID-19 (coronavirus) tests within the program. UConn won the middle two games, while the Musketeers took the opening and closing contests.

Zwack fired a complete-game shutout in the seven-inning opener, surrendering only six hits in a 5-0 victory for Xavier with eight strikeouts mixed in. Peterson pitched the second half of the twin bill, giving up three runs on three hits in five frames of work. He did hit two batters but struck out seven Musketeers.

Xavier hits .252/.358/.406 as a team, led by infielder Ryan Altenberger (.377/.506/.672). However, he has not played since April 27 and it is unclear whether the senior will be available for the tournament. Andrew Walker (.311/.394/.489) and Jack Housinger (.304/.439/.487) are anchors at the top of the lineup and have appeared in 42 and 45 of their team’s 49 contests, respectively.

Trey Schramm (2-0, 5.18) and Jonathan Kelly (1-3, 7.54) lead Xavier relievers in innings pitched and appearances, respectively, but Michael Dillon (0-0, 3.50) is the team’s most effective bullpen piece, with 19 strikeouts in 18 innings of work, but he does have 14 walks. However, the load has been pretty spread out for Xavier, as only two arms have more than 20 innings on the season, while UConn has four such pitchers, including two that have thrown more than 30 innings.

Creighton

The Huskies will play on Friday against whichever team between Creighton and Seton Hall matches their result. If that is a win, the team that emerges victorious will advance directly to the tournament final and have Saturday off, while if UConn drops the tournament opener, they will be required to win Friday and Saturday to play in the final.

UConn did not play against the Bluejays (23-13, 15-6 Big East) in the regular season, as the scheduled series in Omaha was wiped out due to UConn’s coronavirus pause. Jonah Smith (6-4, 4.65) has been starting the second game of Creighton’s series as of late, though Dylan Tebrake (8-0, 2.67) could be held back for Friday’s game.

The top of Creighton’s lineup is dangerous, led by Ryan Mantle (.322/.450/.508), Andrew Meggs (.333/.403/.428), Alan Roden (.381/.471/.701) and Ryan Upton (.302/.395/.516). As of the completion of play on May 25, Roden is No. 30 nationwide in slugging percentage and No. 43 in the country in batting average. However, no other qualifying player has a batting average above .230.

Creighton also has a trio of reliable bullpen arms, led by Paul Bergstrom (2-0, 0.91), John Sakowski (2-3, 3.34) and Ryan Windham (2-0, 0.48). Sakowski has five of the team’s six saves and has the best batting average against (.194) of the group. Bergstrom (29 23 innings), Sakowski (29 23 innings) and Windham (18 23 innings) are also the only relievers with more than 15 innings pitched.

Seton Hall

If UConn faces off against Seton Hall (23-23, 16-11 Big East), the Huskies will have the upper hand, as the Pirates came to Storrs last weekend and were swept, causing the team to slip to the No. 3 seed in the tournament.

Seton Hall has a trio of three strong starters and will face one of Tyler Burnham (3-5, 3.42), who earned the start in Saturday’s finale; David Festa (6-3, 1.81), who pitched in the second game last weekend; or Ryan McLinskey (4-1, 2.85), the arm who opened up the series against UConn. McLinskey had the most successful outing of the three, allowing three runs on seven hits in five innings of work. Festa and Burnham each contributed three frames in their appearances.

The Pirates are a relatively soft-hitting group, as they hit .264/.358/.368, with a slugging percentage that is No. 228 in the country out of 286 teams. Casey Dana (.313/.384/.533) is the team’s power threat, while Will Gale (.321/.389/.375) leads the team in batting average.

UConn will send Ben Casparius (7-4, 3.33) to the mound for its second game whether it wins or loses against Xavier. Casparius cruised in a 15-1 in over Seton Hall, scattering four hits and one run over six innings of work. He struck out seven and walked one Pirate.

The Huskies can play a maximum of five games at Prasco Park. Any additional games will likely be started by a combination Pat Gallagher (5-1, 4.53), Kenny Haus (3-2, 3.31) or Joe Simeone (1-3, 6.21). Haus only has one start, but is second in innings among pitchers who are primarily relievers, behind only closer Caleb Wurster (4-1, 1.89).

Schedule

The tournament, which has a four-team, double-elimination format, begins on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. inside Prasco Park in Mason, Ohio, when Creighton and Seton Hall face off. UConn’s first game follows at 6:30 p.m., against Xavier. Each game prior to the final will be on the Big East Digital Network, while Sunday’s final will be featured on FS2.