Creighton was the biggest test UConn baseball has had to face in conference play so far, but the Huskies were able to gut out the series sweep in a hard-fought series this weekend in Storrs decided by small margins.
The Huskies didn’t go ahead in the opening game of the series until the seventh and came from behind on Saturday and Sunday to take a commanding four-game lead at the top of the Big East.
The Huskies are 11-3 in one-run games this season, a product of successfully emulating the most zen of animals: ducks in a rainstorm.
“I don’t think we’ve ever won this many one- or two-run ballgames,” head coach Jim Penders said. “It’s a calm, slow heartbeat in our dugout. There’s zero panic.”
A duck in a rainstorm is working just as hard as a duck in calm waters, according to Penders, but is working twice as hard underneath. UConn baseball certainly showcased that attitude this weekend, controlling all three of the games even when trailing.
Here’s how it went down.
Friday: UConn 3, Creighton 1
Friday’s matchup featured an old-fashioned pitcher's duel between two aces— the two best pitchers in the Big East. Austin Peterson and Dylan Tebrake went blow-for-blow for eight innings, both hurling 100 pitches, with UConn just shaving ahead 3-1 in the end.
But in a pitching matchup that turned out entirely as advertised, it was the long ball that made the difference between the two teams: In the bottom of the seventh inning, a home run from Matt Donlan off Tebrake put UConn ahead and gave the Huskies the eventual win.
Peterson was nearly flawless in the start against UConn’s main rivals for the Big East title, firing eight innings without allowing an earned run, while striking out nine.
UConn scratched a run across in the third inning on a sacrifice fly from Erik Stock that scored Bryan Padilla. Padilla only reached third on an infield single from David Smith on a play at first base that was too close to call, even with the benefit of instant replay.
Creighton clawed one back with an RBI groundout, an unearned run set up by a passed ball, but Peterson settled it down after that and handed the baton to closer Justin Willis in the ninth inning, who secured his 12th save of the year.
Saturday: UConn 6, Creighton 5
UConn weathered a very early storm from Creighton in the second game of the series to take the win, 6-5, and the series victory.
The Huskies were tied with their opponents 2-2 after a tumultuous first inning in which the Bluejays scored twice off a shaky Pat Gallagher, who issued two walks, two singles and a double.
The game didn’t stay knotted for long, however. Erik Stock put the Huskies ahead with a giant home run to left field to take the lead, and never looked back.
Ian Cooke entered the game in the seventh and pitched two lockdown innings, allowing a single baserunner and retiring the final seven Bluejay hitters.
UConn came right back in the bottom of the first and was able to rebound with two runs of its own. David Smith singled to start the inning but got caught in a run-down. The Huskies didn’t let that faze them, however, with two-out singles from Ben Huber and Korey Morton, then a bases-loaded walk from Casey Dana to knot the game up at two.
After Stock gave UConn the lead in second inning, the Huskies were able to get an insurance run in the fourth with a sacrifice fly.
UConn finally broke it open in the bottom of the seventh. Casey Dana led off the inning with a single, Ben Huber followed it up with another single and Korey Morton earned his first RBI of the day with a double down the left field line. Padilla followed it up with an RBI single to make it 6-3.
Ian Cooke entered the game as a steadying presence and was cruising until the final two batters, when back-to-back single and home run cut the lead to 6-5, but Justin Willis came in and shut the game down.
Sunday: UConn 6, Creighton 5
UConn baseball secured the series sweep on Sunday afternoon in comeback fashion, rallying from 5-4 down in the sixth inning to secure the 6-5 victory.
UConn hopped out to a 4-0 lead in the second inning after defensive miscues piled up for the Bluejays. Zach Bushling and Ben Huber recorded two quick outs, but Korey Morton hustled to third on a pop-up that fell between the shortstop and outfielders to extend the inning. Matt Donlan secured an RBI after the first baseman was pulled off the bag by an errant throw from third, and the Huskies were just getting started. Padilla and T.C. Simmons followed up with back-to-back hits to turn the lineup over. Simmons’ double cleared the bases, and Erik Stock followed it up with an RBI single.
Creighton fired back in the fifth inning with a vengeance, however, determined not to leave the northeast without some blood.
The Blue Jays jumped on starter Enzo Stefanoni, who had been cruising up until that point, scored five runs on six hits in the blink of an eye, chasing the UConn starter from the game.
The Huskies took a frame to collect themselves, but were able to manufacture a run in the sixth inning to tie it up from the most unlikely of sources. Big catcher Matt Donlan singled to get on base, then stole second after it was apparent that Creighton had no interest in holding him on the bag. Center fielder T.C. Simmons, in the lineup for his glove, got it done with his bat by driving Donlan home with an RBI double.
The Huskies took the lead for the final time in the eighth after Donlan was able to again reach base, and again scored off a sacrifice fly from David Smith. Donlan was everywhere on the scorebook, and matched that 2-for-3, three-run effort with an equally impressive performance behind the plate, throwing out the speedy Chris Esposito at second.
Senior reliever Devin Kirby closed out the game pumped full of adrenaline, his high kick and whippy delivery throwing off Creighton batters for 2 2⁄3 perfect innings, earning the win.
Odds and Ends
Although the big guns of Stock, Smith and Bushling contributed their fair share, the under-the-radar members of the UConn team put in huge contributions this weekend to help the Huskies secure the series victory.
Bryan Padilla went 5-for-10 with three runs scored, raising his season average to .273. Matt Donlan, in the middle of nearly a month straight of every day starts at catcher, came up with clutch hits, dirt-ball reads and defensive plays to help the Huskies to victory. T.C. Simmons was in the lineup for his defense on Sunday and ended up contributing on the offensive end, going 2-for-3 with three RBI.
UConn plays in its final home midweek game of the season against Northeastern on Tuesday, then host Xavier in its final home series of the year next weekend, starting at 7:05 p.m. on Friday.