The UConn baseball season is rapidly approaching, and the team’s infield will prove crucial to success. The Huskies’ infield defense has lacked chemistry early on in the season in the past, a result of limited practice time on a water-logged (and often snow-covered) J.O. Christian Field grass, but while the brand new turf field at Elliot Ballpark will definitely help with continuity, UConn baseball still has a few new faces to break in among the infield starters, including key positions at third base and catcher.
Here’s a look at some of the new and returning faces for the Hook C this spring:
Matt Garbowski has the unenviable task of replacing Matt Donlan at catcher. A talented leader in a long line of talented backstops to come through Storrs, Donlan made first-team All-Big East and started 60 games behind the plate for the Huskies, including the final 38 games of the season where he was effectively the only healthy catcher on the roster.
Garbowski started the season backing Donlan up behind the plate, but a nagging back injury forced him out of contention for much of the season. Garbowski managed to appear in 20 games (10 at catcher), where he hit .294 with three doubles and a home run. If he manages to get over the injury troubles, Garbowski should have a good shot at being every bit as solid of a backstop as Donlan.
Redshirt sophomore Ryan Hyde is poised to push Garbowski for the starting job after spending last year as a depth piece, making 11 appearances in 2022 after missing the entirety of 2021 following hip surgery.
The man known to fans as the Albino Rhino is set to return for his second year anchoring the UConn lineup at first base. Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing in at 245 pounds, Ben Huber has only increased his muscle mass and pop at the plate from his 2022 campaign, a season where he slashed .327/.431/.546, hit 11 home runs and led the Huskies in runs scored (69) and runs batted in (66).
Huber will certainly return to the meat of the order as he looks to improve on his 2022 season, but his infield defense might be just as crucial. Huber’s tall, athletic frame allowed him to be an effective asset to the Huskies’ infield defense in 2022, using his range to make the rest of the infield’s throws a little less stressful.
UConn baseball’s second baseman and leadoff hitter, David Smith, returns to the lineup after a solid 2022, where he slashed .307/.405/.496, had 78 hits, nine home runs and a team-leading five triples. Smith started out the season in a bit of a rut, moved to the nine spot in the lineup in mid-March, but started to heat up again in April, batting .357 in the final 40 games of the season.
In addition to his hitting talent, Smith is a weapon on the basepaths. The former LaSalle transfer led the team with 23 stolen bases and uses his lateral quickness to his advantage at second base with just seven errors on the year
Smith racked up accolades in the offseason, named to the Collegiate Baseball All-American team, ranked the No. 14 second baseman in the nation by D1Baseball.com, and was voted team captain by his peers in the fall.
With Zach Bushling’s departure on the left side of the infield, there are a number of candidates to replace him at third base. UConn baseball looked to the transfer portal in the offseason and arguably found themselves an upgrade in Dominic Freeberger, who was UNC Asheville’s star and best player in 2021 and 2022, a four-year starter who amassed 200 hits, 102 runs and 78 RBI during his time with the Bulldogs.
Freeberger’s 2022 season was his most impressive yet, batting .338 with a .432 on-base percentage and as many walks as strikeouts. He can play on the infield or in the outfield and even made appearances out of the bullpen, allowing just three hits through 11 2⁄3 innings pitched in 2022, boasting a fastball in the mid-90s.
Luke Broadhurst is expected to be in the mix for the starting DH spot, but can also fill in on the infield if need be. Broadhurst began his career at UConn in 2018, but transferred to Eastern Connecticut after redshirting. The Stafford native lit it up at during his four years at the Division III level, with 161 hits, 27 home runs and more walks than strikeouts in 123 games played. In 2022, Broadhurst took his offensive performance to the next level, batting .406 with a 1.295 OPS and a team-leading 13 home runs and 126 total bases.
Chris Brown, a junior from Trumbull, could also stake his claim for a spot in the lineup, whether at third base or DH. Brown got hot in the 2021 Big East tournament and stayed hot in the NCAA Tournament, hitting .461 in the postseason and earning a spot in the All-Big East Tournament Team. He would cool off in 2023, hitting just .179 on the season as he moved in and out of the lineup, but will be right back in contention to start if he’s able to recapture some of this 2021 form at the plate.
Left out of the lineup due to injury for the first few weeks of the season, Bryan Padilla became an indispensable part of the lineup by April, holding down the two spot in the lineup through the end of non-conference play and the beginning of the Big East season. He would get shifted down in the lineup after he cooled off but ended the year with a respectable .282 batting average, with 64 hits, 15 doubles and 37 RBI.
Padilla has great range at shortstop, but as a result, his off-balance throws can be a little wild, leading the team with 18 errors last year. According to head coach Jim Penders, however, Padilla has worked hard on this issue during the offseason, and has improved both offensively and defensively during the fall.
Paul Tammaro is another Division III transfer who could break into the starting lineup, arriving at UConn from Oswego State University. Tammaro was the Lakers’ hit leader in 2022, slashing .444.528/.672 and earning a spot on the ABCA/Rawlings All-America Third Team.
Don’t be surprised if freshman Ryan Daniels cracks the starting squad early on either, shuffling Freeberger to the outfield or replacing Padilla. Daniels, a Meriden native, can play either position on the left side of the infield and made a strong first impression in fall camp, according to D1Baseball.com.