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UConn baseball reached its ceiling this year

The Huskies had lots of innings and at-bats to replace, which made replicating 2022’s Super Regional trip difficult.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn baseball’s season ended on Sunday, as the Huskies were eliminated from the Gainesville Regional by No. 2 Florida, ending the program’s quest to return to Super Regionals for the second consecutive season and get to the College World Series for the first time since 1979.

UConn, which advanced to the Stanford Super Regional in 2022 and was one win away from making it to the College World Series, had to replace its top four starting pitchers, along with four regulars in the lineup.

The Huskies were blessed in 2022, as Austin Peterson, Pat Gallagher and Enzo Stefanoni made every single weekend start, doing so in order. The trio combined for 50 starts in 66 games and were able to get deep into games, even when they didn’t have their best stuff. Stefanoni failed to complete the fifth inning six times in 16 starts, while Peterson pitched into the sixth in every start but his final appearance in a UConn uniform and Gallagher pitched into the sixth 15 out of 17 times. Even Cole Chudoba, who started six games, was a reliable option both as a starter in the midweek and reliever on the weekend.

This quartet, along with left-handed specialist Brendan O’Donnell, who transferred to Houston, and Hector Alejandro, who missed 2023 due to injury, along with four other depth arms, represent 384 23 innings that departed UConn after 2022 out of 592 13 total frames.

Zach Bushling, Casey Dana, Matt Donlan and Erik Stock also exhausted their collegiate eligibility and formed the core of a successful lineup that head coach Jim Penders had to replace. The four, along with some depth contributors, took 1,169 at-bats out of the 2,330 total the Huskies took in 2022.

UConn had to replace 64.9 percent of its innings and 50.2 percent of its at-bats from a Super Regional team. The margin for error is also much lower for UConn than many of the other final 16 programs in last year’s NCAA Tournament, as 13 of them are from one of the four power leagues (ACC, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC), which creates advantages in recruiting and also a strong conference schedule, reducing the importance of non-conference play.

The Huskies went into the year with two Division III transfers in Andrew Sears and Stephen Quigley contending to start in the rotation, along with an expected step forward from a pair of sophomores in Ian Cooke, who was named a freshman All-American, as well as Jack Sullivan, who performed well in relief.

The flashes were there for the starters. Sears threw 5 13 shutout innings against San Diego State with eight strikeouts and shut down Georgetown for eight innings in the Big East Tournament. Cooke pitched into the seventh and gave up just one run against Florida Atlantic. Quigley threw seven shutout innings against Villanova. Sullivan didn’t allow a run in five frames to UMBC.

However, as the run-scoring environment around the country was as healthy as it has been since before the BBCOR standard came into effect in 2011, the consistency wasn’t there. Quigley didn’t escape the third against Columbia. Sullivan gave up nine runs in five innings to St. John’s and Xaiver. Sears got less than 10 outs four times. Cooke didn’t get out of the second against Butler. While it was due to injury, he hadn’t pitched well prior to being lifted.

The bullpen, particularly Brady Afthim, Garrett Coe, Zach Fogell, Devin Kirby and Justin Willis, were solid and did what they needed to do to hold leads. However, their ceiling was limited as the quintet was often forced to get through the middle innings and hope the offense would score enough runs.

More often than not, the bats held up their end of the bargain and then some. Transfers Luke Broadhurst, Dominic Freeberger and Jake Studley entered the fold and were solid in the starting lineup, while Paul Tammaro and Ryan Daniels were effective as a platoon when TC Simmons went down, forcing David Smith to the outfield.

As a team, UConn hit .302/.411/.484, which is one of the best slash lines of the Jim Penders era. The Huskies scored more than five runs 46 times and went 41-5 in those games, but were 3-12 when falling under that mark.

The offense kept on humming and the returners in the bullpen were strong, but the starting rotation struggled all season. This was a theme throughout college baseball, as run scoring was up. This limited UConn’s ceiling to a Regional, grabbing a win over the 4-seed, but going down against the stiffer competition, particularly having to do so out of the losers’ bracket.

The program goes up against a lot. Most of the elite players in the Northeast go to ACC, SEC or other southern powerhouses, including Coastal Carolina, which leaves Penders to find diamonds in the rough or guys that truly want to come to UConn and have to battle to win every game with little margin for error. This creates a mentally tough team that doesn’t give up easily, which was demonstrated throughout the postseason.

Going to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments, three of which were as an at-large, with a Super Regional mixed in, is no small feat for a team in the Northeast. If any Northeast program is going to represent the region in the College World Series for the first time since Stony Brook in 2012, smart money would be on UConn. The team was fated to take a step back this year with how much it lost after a dream 2022, but it’s still in a solid place and odds are good to go back to a sixth-straight Regional in 2024.