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UConn Baseball NCAA Tournament Preview: South Bend Regional | Friday 7 p.m., WatchESPN

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The Huskies’ College World Series dreams run through a regional gauntlet that features Michigan, Notre Dame, and Central Michigan.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Get ready for tonight’s game with our pregame show at 6:30 on YouTube or Facebook!

When:

Friday, June 4, 7 p.m. vs. Michigan

Saturday, June 5, TBD

Sunday, June 6, TBD

Monday, June 7, TBD (if necessary)

Where: South Bend, Indiana

TV: WatchESPN

Radio: FM 91.7 WHUS

Live Stats

Projected Starters

Friday: RHP Austin Peterson (7-1, 2.65 ERA)

Rest of weekend: TBD

Game Times:

Friday, June 4

1 p.m.: Central Michigan vs. Notre Dame (Game 1)

7 p.m.: Michigan vs. Connecticut (Game 2)

Saturday, June 5

12 p.m.: Loser of Game 1 vs. Loser of Game 2 (Game 3)

6 p.m.: Winner of Game 1 vs. Winner of Game 2 (Game 4)

Sunday, June 6

12 p.m.: Winner of Game 3 vs. Loser of Game 4 (Game 5)

6 p.m.: Winner of Game 5 vs. Winner of Game 4 (Game 6)

Monday, June 7

1 p.m.: Winner of Game 5 vs. Winner of Game 4 (If necessary)


When they wrapped up a brutally tough non-conference road trip with a heartbreaking extra-innings loss to Texas Tech on March 15, UConn baseball’s postseason hopes seemed dim. Getting swept in Lubbock left them 4-10 after three weeks.

UConn had to gamble on a strong non-conference schedule with the move to the new Big East, a historically weak baseball conference since the last big round of realignment in 2013. With just St. Joseph’s, Rhode Island, and UMass remaining on the non-conference slate, and ranking in the 80s in RPI, the road to the NCAA tournament was beginning to look narrow.

Since Texas Tech hit back-to-back-to-back jacks to seal the series sweep on March 15, the Huskies are 29-5 without a series loss, taking a band saw to the Big East and clinching the regular-season conference title on the last day after a four-game sweep of Seton Hall.

This likely put them in the NCAA tournament before the conference tournament anyway, but just to be certain, the Huskies went and won the Big East Tournament as well. The Huskies were drawn in the South Bend Regional, where they will face Michigan, No. 10 Notre Dame, and Central Michigan.

In this four-team, double-elimination tournament, the two winners from Friday will play on Saturday at 6 p.m. for a spot in the Regional final, while the two losing teams will play at 1 p.m. in an elimination game.

UConn has the potential to face all three members of the Regional over the next three days, so let’s get to know them a little:

Michigan

The Huskies’ first opponent in the South Bend Regional is Michigan, a team they have faced four times since 2020.

Fresh off their College World Series Final appearance in 2019, Michigan fell to UConn in the MLB4 tournament, then dropped their series to the Huskies two games to one. Michigan might have counted themselves lucky that the 2020 season was canceled after a middling start, but their 2021 season put that in distant memory.

This year, Michigan ended the regular season at 27-17 in their conference-only schedule, good enough for third in the Big Ten and an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. With the caveat that RPI is pretty useless when only factoring in conference games, Michigan is ranked No. 89, but their eight series victories were essential to sealing their case.

The Wolverines are driven by their tremendous pitching staff, comfortably in the top-50 in the nation in ERA and second in the Big Ten in batting average against. Left-hander Steven Hajjar earned All-Conference honors with a 4-1 record and a 2.85 ERA as a starter, leading the team with 101 strikeouts, and will likely face UConn on Friday. If the Wolverines want to rest Hajjar for a potential elimination game, they will likely throw sophomore Cameron Weston, a right-hander with a 7-3 record and a 2.40 ERA. The bespectacled Willie Weiss leads the Michigan bullpen, with five saves and a 2.49 ERA.

Michigan's lineup is anchored by Ted Burton, a second baseman who has become somewhat of a breakout star in his sophomore season. After spending most of the shortened 2020 season at third, Burton moved to the middle infield and became the Wolverines’ best hitter, with a team-high average (.355), slugging percentage (.673), and on-base (.445).

Elsewhere in the lineup, utility man Tito Flores leads the team in doubles and is also batting over .300, and fifth-year transfer from Kansas Benjamin Sems brings some experience to the lineup at shortstop, batting .321 on the year, although he can have trouble with strikeouts. Right fielder Clark Elliott bats leadoff and is a base-stealing threat, with eight grabs in ten attempts.

Notre Dame

If UConn can get past Michigan in Game 1, they will likely run into a powerhouse in No. 10 Notre Dame. The Irish have made the NCAA tournament nine times since 2000 and have made the College World Series twice. They’re led by second-year head coach Link Jarrett.

Anything short of crashing out of their own regional would be a success for the Fighting Irish. After being tabbed to finish rock bottom in the ACC preseason poll, Notre Dame won their ACC division for the first time in school history with a 30-11 record, and their 25-10 conference record led the entire ACC. They didn’t lose a series the entire year and ended the regular season on a ridiculous 11-2 run.

Notre Dame’s deep pitching staff has been essential, ranking no. 39 in the nation with a 3.95 team ERA in one of the most talent-rich offensive leagues in the nation. Their defense quite literally is the best in the country, with a .985 fielding percentage topping all other schools.

John Michael Bertrand is Notre Dame’s ace, leading the team with 57 strikeouts and a 7-2 record. While Bertrand has started 12 games this year, Jarrett has swapped multiple other pitchers into the remainder of the rotation—10 Irish pitchers have earned starts. That bodes well for Regional play, when potentially five games in four days can strain your pitching staff to its breaking point.

Their starting lineup is anchored by monster first baseman Niko Kavadas, who crushed his way into All-Conference honors this year with 16 home runs and a .691 slugging percentage. If UConn can get past Michigan in Game 1, the Irish won’t be an easy out.

Central Michigan

Should UConn end up in the losers’ bracket or Notre Dame avoids a rather sizable upset, the Huskies will play against the MAC champions, Central Michigan.

The Chippewas tore up a relatively weak MAC en route to an impressive 39-16 overall record, winning their last eight games to end the regular season at 31-9 in conference play. Their biggest non-conference claim to fame came with a series win over West Virginia, at the time ranked No. 23 in the nation.

Central Michigan has been the cream of the crop in the MAC in recent years, making the NCAA tournament three times in the past five years, and has a rich baseball history, winning the conference nine times from 1981 to 1993.

Central Michigan’s pitching staff is elite for a mid-major program, ranking No. 6 in the country in ERA, and the jewel of the starting rotation is redshirt freshman Andrew Taylor. The right-hander holds the second-best ERA in the country (1.21) and ranks No. 11 in strikeouts with 120.

Beyond Taylor, Central Michigan’s pitching staff is super deep which, again, will serve them very well as the weekend stretches on. They’re certainly no pushover as a No. 4 seed, and Notre Dame should be on notice on Friday, as should the rest of the Regional.

What to watch for

  • How will UConn’s pitching staff respond to the compressed weekend schedule? To get anywhere in the postseason, you have to have arms, and a lot of them. UConn has somewhat rebuilt their bullpen this year in front of Caleb Wurster, and names like Andrew Marrero, Randy Polonia, Justin Willis, and Garrett Coe have emerged as reliable pitchers in the bullpen. In terms of the starters, Austin Peterson, Ben Casparius, and Pat Gallagher are ready to go. In the likely scenario that the Huskies slip up at least once this weekend, Joe Simeone will have to call upon his experience to dig out a four- or five-inning start.
  • In what form will Christian Fedko’s postseason heroics come this year? In his first taste of postseason action in 2018, he hit a massive go-ahead home run to defeat then-No. 15 Coastal Carolina in their own Regional, complete with a nuclear bat flip. He followed that up in 2019 with multi-hit games against Nebraska, Harvard, and Kansas, attempting to will the Huskies past the first round. After a 4-for-15 Big East tournament, expect Fedko to just be warming up for a monster Regional.
  • Will Kyler Fedko follow in his brother’s clutch footsteps? The Big East preseason player of the year already collected postseason accolades on Thursday, when he was named as a Collegiate Baseball Second Team All-American. He leads the team in all major offensive statistical categories and made the rest of the Big East bow down to him in conference play, with a frankly ridiculous .549/.902/.600 slash line. If the Huskies go on a long postseason run, Kyler Fedko will likely be at the front of it.
  • All of the teams in this Regional have strong pitching. How will UConn’s potent lineup fare against elite competition on the mound?