Despite another 40-victory regular season, it hasn’t been easy for UConn baseball this year. The Huskies have trailed after five innings 11 times this year and claimed victory after needing to do so on just three occasions in 2022.
The bullpen, led by Brady Afhim, Garrett Coe, Zach Fogell and Justin Willis, has been stout when they needed to be, while veterans and underclassmen alike have come through with clutch at-bats. Graduate student Luke Broadhurst and freshman Ryan Daniels each have walk-offs this season.
“The 40 guys I got are pretty darn tough,” Jim Penders said to the media following Monday’s Selection Show. “I was proud of the way that they fought, proud of their resilience.”
In the Big East Tournament opener, UConn trailed Georgetown 3-2 after six innings and 4-3 after the top of the eighth before scoring a pair in the bottom half of the frame to eke out a 5-4 victory. Fogell allowed just a solo home run over three innings of relief, Broadhurst tied the game at 3-3 in the seventh and four singles did the job in the eighth.
After getting blitzed by Xavier, the Huskies landed in the losers’ bracket and were promptly jumped for a run in the top of the first for the second straight night, this time by the Hoyas that gave them fits on Wednesday. However, Penders’ squad once again flashed their toughness and rolled to a 10-1 victory to move to the Big East Tournament final. To claim the title, the Huskies needed two victories.
The first game was tight but a two-run sixth gave the Huskies the lead and Willis slammed the door with a four-out save. Even in the winner-take-all finale, the Storrs nine led after eight frames before faltering.
“A good friend sent me a text that said, ‘Sometimes the tank just runs dry.’ It was full for 17 innings and we were clicking. That’s not going to ruin [Monday],” Penders said about his team’s tough ninth inning in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader.
That mettle and toughness are going to be needed if the Huskies want to accomplish their goals of breaking through to the College World Series for the first time since 1979.
No. 2 Florida and Texas Tech both have elite offenses that will punish mistakes on the mound. The Gators’ Jac Caglianone is second in the country in home runs, while he and four other teammates have an OPS above .900. Meanwhile, Texas Tech holds a top 25 ranking in each of the three slash line categories (batting average, on-base and slugging percentage).
UConn’s offense can hit with the best of them, which could make for an explosive Regional in Gainesville, but it could also mean the Huskies could need to add to its total of come-from-behind wins with some late-inning dramatics.
If UConn matches up with Florida, it’ll by far the best team that the Huskies have faced all year, while Texas Tech would unquestionably be the best offense on the docket in 2023. The bullpen has largely done what it needed to do, but that’s been against Big East competition. Doing so in the NCAA Tournament in an SEC ballpark is a different animal.
Still, UConn has shown that it has a short memory and even when it’s not easy, the team has proven to have the grit and toughness to pull off victories in all sorts of ways. That mentality will need to continue if the Huskies plan to extend their season beyond this weekend.