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Did UConn baseball’s hosting hopes shrink away on Mother’s Day?

A bad weekend against a weak opponent sent the Huskies free falling downward in the RPI rankings.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn baseball had the same gaudy record in 2022 as it does in 2023. Through 50 games, this year’s Huskies sit at 38-12, which is two games worse than the 40-10 mark at the same point last year. That team was a 3-seed in the College Park Regional and may not have made it without a Big East Tournament championship.

The difference? Metrics. Even with seven additional non-conference games against top-15 RPI competition in the NCAA Tournament, UConn’s non-conference strength of schedule was at No. 129 last season. The Huskies played 31 Quad 4 games, including 15 sub-200 battles, and just one Quad 1 foe (Louisville) in a game that was played the first week of the season.

Prior to Sunday, the 2023 Huskies had sparkling metrics. UConn was 4-2 against Quad 1 competition with just 17 Quad 4 games, only seven of which were sub-200, including zero losses. This pushed its non-conference strength of schedule up to No. 55, as of the start of play on May 15. When combined with a 14-7 record against the RPI top 100, a 16-6 road record and a No. 16 RPI, this was a strong case to host an NCAA Tournament regional, provided the Huskies continued on their winning ways through Memorial Day weekend.

Run scoring has been up across college baseball this season, as fewer than 75 programs have an ERA below 4.50, and a better offensive environment couldn’t have come at a worse time for UConn. All three of its weekend starting pitchers from 2022, who combined to make 50 starts in 66 games and throw 298 innings out of 592 13 frames played, each either graduated or were drafted.

This pushed Ian Cooke from taking on a variety of roles in an impressive freshman season to the Friday night spot, followed by a pair of Division III transfers in Stephen Quigley and Andrew Sears and fellow sophomore Jack Sullivan as the primary weekend options. Quigley’s ERA, at 4.29, is the only one below 5.00 and it comes with plenty of traffic on the bases, as opposing hitters have a .268 batting average against him.

Jim Penders has plenty of solid bullpen options to follow his starters, including Brady Afthim, Garrett Coe, Zach Fogell and Justin Willis, while Devin Kirby has been trusted to give his team length when it’s needed, even if his numbers aren’t as solid as they were last year. Nonetheless, starting pitching is the Huskies’ clear weakness in 2023.

Through 12 weekends, UConn out-slugged its opponents to victory, scoring fewer than five runs just eight times in 47 games with a 1-7 record in those contests. However, Butler, a team down near No. 240 in the RPI, hung tight with UConn all weekend and pulled off a win Sunday after suffering two walk-off losses earlier in the weekend to hand the Storrs nine its first sub-200 loss of the year.

Sunday’s defeat, which came with the double-whammy of coming at home, pushed UConn from No. 16 in the RPI to No. 25. Raphael Cerrato, head coach at Rhode Island and longtime friend of Penders, agreed to cancel Tuesday’s midweek game. With URI ranked No. 192 in the RPI with a decimated pitching staff after UConn’s starters pitched a combined 9 23 innings over the weekend, playing the game was unlikely to help the Huskies as they jockey for position down the stretch.

Now, it’s just three road games against Creighton left and the Big East Tournament left to climb back up in the RPI within range to host. Boyd’s World’s RPI Needs report, which measures how high a team can reach in a vacuum, says that there is no way for UConn to get back into the top 16 of the RPI by the end of the regular season. The site hasn’t updated to include Tuesday’s cancellation but says the team needs two wins to stay in the top 32.

Western schools, particularly those in the Pac-12, will frequently get an RPI break to host regionals, but these waters are relatively untested in the Northeast. Rutgers is the only 1-seed in the 64-team era and did so back in 2000. UConn in 2018 came the closest to doing so, but failed to win a conference regular season or tournament championship and was passed over in favor of NC State. The Huskies finished third, two games back of Houston and lost the tournament championship game to East Carolina, which hosted the Greenville Regional.

Boston College is also looming. While the committee does not use location as a consideration for hosting privileges, only on-field resume and the strength of a program’s bid, it’s unclear if the committee would grant New England two regionals after never going farther north than Montclair, New Jersey. The Eagles are at No. 14 in the RPI with a 14-13 ACC record and 12 Quad 1 wins, with an opportunity for three more at home against Notre Dame to close the regular season.

For UConn, winning one or both Big East titles is a must, as Rutgers swept both in 2000 and aside from metrics, conference pecking order is also considered to be a plus by the committee. Aside from the achievement in itself, it means UConn likely avoided another bad loss, or potentially a loss altogether. Creighton is solidly Quad 3 and RPI anchors Butler, St. John’s and Villanova are either eliminated from tournament contention or need significant help to get into the field.

There are less than two weeks until Selection Monday and the 16 regional hosts will be announced on May 28, the night before the rest of the field is announced. UConn can earn up to seven more wins before then, if the Huskies win the Big East Tournament out of the loser’s bracket, but can get six if they come out of the winner’s bracket. With a strong performance, UConn can still earn that 1-seed, but Sunday’s loss made that road much tougher to navigate.