UConn baseball got its season off to a strong start, going 2-1 in the USF Baseball Invitational in Tampa. They knocked off the hosts on Friday and Louisville on Sunday, with a loss to Charlotte on Saturday.
Non-conference games are more important than they used to be for UConn. After moving to the Big East, a weaker baseball league than the AAC, out-of-conference contests carry slightly more importance as they represent a greater proportion of the opportunities available to improve their RPI and tournament resume. Both of these wins will help UConn on that front.
The weekend featured an overall solid performance from the UConn offense, combined with brilliant individual performances from Austin Peterson in Friday’s start, freshman Ian Cooke in relief, and Harvard transfer Enzo Stefanoni on Sunday.
Here’s how the weekend went down:
UConn 5, USF 4
UConn’s first game of the season had a postseason feel to it, as the Huskies took down South Florida on their home turf after an extra-innings home run from Casey Dana gave them a 5-4 win.
“It was great to see him show a little emotion. He hit the heck out of that, and it’s a great way to welcome him to the UConn uniform,” head coach Jim Penders said.
After not quite connecting with a similar pitch in his previous at-bat, Dana connected with a grooved fastball down the middle of the plate, sending it over the centerfield wall.
“It feels electric, I don’t really have the words [for it],” Dana said postgame. “But we’re definitely going to take this feeling and run with it.”
The Huskies were down 4-2 in the seventh inning when center fielder T.C. Simmons got the comeback started with an opposite-field double, his second of the game. Third baseman Chris Brown drove him in with a double off the wall, then team captain Erik Stock, playing barely two weeks after hand surgery, tied it up at 4-4 with a bloop single to left.
Stock ended the night 3-for-4 with a run and an RBI.
“It’s remarkable what he did tonight. [He’s] such a gamer, such a tough guy, and our guys followed his lead,” Penders said.
To preserve the 4-4 tie, freshman Ian Cooke got a chance to show his stuff after coming in for transfer Cole Chudoba, who allowed three earned runs in the sixth. The man affectionately known as the “Cookie Monster” made a pretty good first impression, throwing 2.2 scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and striking out four with a wicked slider on display.
“He’s not afraid, and we found that out [tonight],” Penders said. “We gave him the ball and he didn’t look wide-eyed. He looked like he was gonna get the job done, and he did.”
UConn’s first two runs came off of Simmons’ first double of the game in the second inning and a single from Dana in the fourth. Simmons finished 3-for-4 with two doubles and Dana ended the night 2-for-5 with two RBI.
Starting the game, fourth-year junior Austin Peterson picked up right where he left off in 2021, going 5.2 innings and allowing just a single earned run, striking out 13, and getting out of tough jams in the first and third innings caused by iffy defense from the new-look infield.
Charlotte 7, UConn 3
UConn’s second game of the year ended in disappointment against a feisty Charlotte squad, as the pitching sputtered in a 7-3 defeat.
Erik Stock got UConn off to a hot start in the top of the first with an RBI double to drive in David Smith, but the slim lead didn’t last long. Sophomore Pat Gallagher had a season debut to forget, as three walks, two hits, and an error drove in four runs in the bottom of the first.
Sophomore Garrett Coe made his season debut out of the pen, and settled things down with 2.2 scoreless innings of work, allowing just one hit and two walks. Big right-hander Hector Alejandro continued the solid bullpen work with 2.1 scoreless innings, striking out four and allowing just a single hit.
UConn’s offense tried to inch its way back but was ultimately unsuccessful. Freshman catcher Matt Garbowski’s two-run home run brought the Huskies within two runs in the fourth inning, but the Huskies failed to take advantage of their other scoring opportunities, stranding 11 runners on base in the game.
UConn 9, Louisville 2
After a mixed bag in the first two games of the weekend, the Huskies rode an ace-worthy performance from Enzo Stefanoni to a 9-2 win over Louisville.
Stefanoni pitched to contact and hit his spots expertly with a fastball in the upper 80’s and a slow-moving eephus curve in the 60s, throwing 6.2 scoreless innings with eight strikeouts and leaving the game after throwing just 96 pitches.
UConn’s offense jumped on the Louisville pitching staff early and often, taking advantage of a Cardinals’ infield that was fraught with early-season mistakes. La Salle transfer David Smith started the game with a leadoff double and was sent home by an RBI single from shortstop Zach Bushling.
The senior from Lake Isabella, California added to the lead in the second, with a monster three-run home run in the second, sending home T.C. Simmons and Matt Donlan, who reached base on an error and a walk respectively.
Freshman Jack Sullivan entered the game for Stefanoni in a high-leverage situation; the Huskies were up 4-0 but with runners and first and second. He got out of the jam with a pop-up to center, and it was smooth sailing from then on out, ending the night with 1.1 shutout, hitless innings.
The Huskies got some insurance runs in the seventh inning with a sacrifice fly from Chris Brown, then Donlan got his first hit in a UConn uniform in style with a sky-high three-run home run to left-center to make it 8-0. The Huskies tacked on another sacrifice fly in eighth to make it 9-0, and after an uncharacteristically-shaky outing by closer Justin Willis, earned a 9-2 win.
Next up, UConn heads to Jacksonville to take on North Florida in a three-game series starting on Friday, February 25.