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UConn Baseball Roster Preview: Pitching Staff

The Huskies face a big rebuilding job with the pitching staff, but have all the puzzle pieces to make it work.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

LSU is DBU, Alabama produces great running backs, and UConn men’s basketball regularly produces elite lead guards. Like those position factories in their various sports, UConn baseball has benefited from many stud pitchers over the years. They’ve also had the depth to reload every year, a necessity when you send players to the big leagues annually.

Heading into 2022, pitching coach Josh MacDonald might have his biggest rebuild job yet. The 2021 staff wasn’t the most top-heavy in terms of talent, but was extremely deep, and had at least an above-average arm for every role.

Randy Polonia was an (extremely) experienced arm in the middle of the bullpen, posting a career-low 2.02 ERA in his final year at Storrs. Caleb Wurster was UConn’s lights-out closer, whiffing 52 batters in 41 innings of work from an unusual arm angle. Andrew Marrero was his reliable setup man with a funky lineup and a killer sinker, while Kenny Haus and Joe Simeone filled in as starters or in relief as needed.

Reggie Crawford’s absence will be felt more in the lineup than the bullpen, but the gap will be felt all the same. He was set to be either a Sunday starter or a bullpen ace heading into 2022, but an arm injury in October ended his season before it even began.

And that’s just the bullpen. Ben Casparius was an elite prospect, and he was rewarded for his 127 strikeouts, the second-highest season total in UConn history, as a selection in the MLB draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It might be one of the bigger pitching staff rebuilds in school history, but UConn has some important building blocks returning, along with a bevy of new talent ready to contribute.

“I like the pieces, I just have to figure out how we’re going to use them. Last year’s team, looking back at it, we were really fortunate,” pitching coach Josh MacDonald said. “I have pieces just as good talent-wise as [those guys], I just don’t know which ones are going to react under pressure.”

Austin Peterson is a fourth-year junior who really came into his own last year, after transferring in from Wabash Community College, as a valuable member of the weekend rotation.

He locked down the Sunday starting spot early, posting a 7-1 record with a 2.58 ERA, 82 strikeouts through 80.1 innings, and a .201 batting average against. Later in the season, Peterson grew into the de facto Friday night starter as Casparius struggled with nagging injuries. He started and won the opening game of the Big East tournament and the NCAA regional.

Peterson’s fastball sits in the low 90s, and his pitching repertoire includes a four-seam, a two-seam, a slider, curveball, and changeup.

UConn’s second rotation spot will most likely be third-year sophomore Pat Gallagher. Like Peterson, Gallagher had to fight for his role in 2021, and became the Huskies’ third starter about halfway through the season. Gallagher is a strikeout specialist, wiping out 60 batters in just 52.2 innings in 2021 with a fastball in the low 90’s, a curveball, and a changeup.

UConn will have a healthy competition for the third starting spot, which often means that weekdays will be in good hands as well. Cole Chudoba is a transfer from Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts who is tabbed to quickly earn a weekend starting spot. He has a fastball in the mid-90s with a little bit of bite and had an impressive summer in the Cape with the Bourne Braves. If Chudoba doesn’t end up a starter, expect him to feature in the back end of the Huskies’ bullpen.

Another transfer vying for a starting spot is Enzo Stefanoni, who arrived in Storrs from Harvard this offseason. Stefanoni isn’t a power pitcher, but his stuff is hard to hit and pitches to ground balls. Stefanoni had a breakout season in 2019 with the Crimson, posting a 2.82 ERA through 19 appearances, and in his first full season post-COVID, with a 3.86 ERA in 37.1 innings for the Vermont Mountaineers this summer in the NECBL.

In the bullpen, freshman Jack Sullivan has the chance to make a big mark on the Huskies’ season. Sullivan is a 6-foot right-hander from Carmel, New York, and has made a name for himself already on campus with a fastball in the mid-90s and a frisbee breaking ball that’s struck out both members of the UConn roster and minor leaguers returning to the Huskies’ facilities alike.

“I think the world of Jack. Even without having played a game yet, I think he’s gonna be a really good pitcher for us,” head coach Jim Penders said.

Sullivan will feature mainly as a bullpen arm to start, as a setup man for returning Justin Willis, but could see some starts down the road, especially when games start to pile on in the postseason.

Right-hander Ian Cooke is another freshman expected to take on a big role in the upcoming season. Cooke attended Canterbury in New Milford, where he was named a top-15 recruit in the state by Collegiate Baseball. At just 19 years old, he has a fastball touching the low-mid 90s, and a wicked changeup and curveball.

In the bullpen, fifth-year senior Justin Willis is ready to take on a leadership role. The right-hander was an intimidating presence in a stacked bullpen in 2021 despite standing 5-foot-8, making 16 appearances with a 2.60 ERA and holding opponents to a .138 average against. Brendan O'Donnell is a lefty looking to rebound from an inconsistent 2021. His unorthodox windup and frisbee slider messes with opponents’ rhythm, and he has a chance to establish himself as a late-game option if he can control his free bases.

Pitchers like Brendan O’Donnell and Bobby McBride will also fit into the bullpen as returning arms ready to make an impact. Hector Alejandro, a redshirt sophomore from Waterbury, Connecticut, also has a live arm and will be fighting for a spot in the bullpen over the course of the season.