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UConn baseball survives Wake Forest to open NCAA Tournament

The Huskies blew a 7-2 lead in the eighth, but came back for the win in the ninth.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

With an offense as dangerous as the Wake Forest’s a game isn’t over until all 27 outs have been recorded, which UConn baseball learned in its NCAA Tournament opener.

The Huskies were up 7-2 headed into the bottom of the seventh inning of the opening game of the College Park Regional before Wake Forest erased the lead with a four-run eighth. However, UConn came back and scored again in the ninth to take an 8-7 victory over the Demon Deacons and move to the winner’s bracket.

“There’s no panic in our dugout,” head coach Jim Penders said. “It helps having seniors and grads up and down the lineup.”

Wake Forest’s Lucas Costello drilled a pinch-hit home run to left-center field in the seventh to make it 7-3. Against UConn set-up man Devin Kirby, the middle of the order put pressure early in the eighth as Nick Kurtz, who came into the game with a 1.167 OPS, had runners on second and third with nobody out.

Both runners came across, the first on a Kurtz ground out and the second on a single up the middle by Brock Wilken, trimming the lead to 7-5 and putting the tying run at the plate. In the next at bat, Kirby’s 3-2 pitch got too much of the plate and Adam Cecere took advantage, taking it over the fence just right of the batter’s eye for a tie ballgame.

UConn had the top of the order up to begin the ninth inning and second baseman David Smith hustled to beat out a grounder that second baseman Pierce Bennett couldn’t field cleanly. Erik Stock worked an eight-pitch walk and after Casey Dana popped up the sacrifice bunt attempt, Ben Huber came to the plate.

The 2-2 pitch from Camden Minacci was up and in to the right-hander but got just enough on it for his second hit of the day and sent it into shallow center field, plating Smith.

“Ben Huber gets two strikes on him and somehow gets enough on it to have it drop in,” Penders said. “I figured that was our one shot.”

Closer Justin Willis, who entered with one out in the eighth, earned his second win of the year as he retired each of the five hitters he faced.

UConn’s big inning came in the fifth, when it scored four times. Eight hitters came to the plate, led off by a TC Simmons single, before Bryan Padilla went deep for the eighth time this season to put his team in front, 3-2.

“[Padilla] really did get us jump-started,” Penders said. “It was nice to get on his back.”

Stock also worked a two-out walk and Dana smacked a double down the right-field line to put runners on second and third for Huber. While Stock crossed the plate on a wild pitch, an opposite-field single brought home Dana, pushing the Huskies’ advantage out to 5-2.

Dana’s next at-bat in the seventh brought him within a triple of the cycle as part of a 3-for-5 day with a two-run home run off the left-field foul pole. The big fly chased Rhett Lowder, the Wake Forest starter and ACC Pitcher of the Year, from the game.

“It makes it a lot easier,” Peterson said of having an offense that can score in bunches. “It makes it easier for me to attack guys and make them put balls in play.”

On the mound, Austin Peterson gave his team six innings of two-run ball, surrendering three hits and four walks along with 11 strikeouts. His 10th punchout, which came against Kurtz in the sixth, gave him UConn’s single-season strikeout record, breaking Collin McLaughlin’s total of 138, set in 1979.

UConn will face the winner of No. 15 Maryland and LIU in a winner’s bracket game on Saturday. First pitch is at 7 p.m.