Huskies Hunker Down

At The Ballpark

 

Call ‘em the ugly ducklings of college baseball.

There’s nothing glamorous about this Connecticut baseball team. They don’t wow you with flashy bats, or mid-90s hurlers nor do they sport a gleaming won-loss mark.

But on a night that was played in a gleaming new ballpark with all the amenities, including a raucous, bigger-than-the-announced-attendance crowd on hand, the Huskies looked like pure Yukon gold, taking down East Carolina 6-0.

In a word, Mush!

Tim Cate straddled the mound for the Huskies and proved to be every bit the ornery competitor. Maybe even to a fault. Cate was consistently shaking off signals from pitching coach Joshua MacDonald from the dugout. (More on that in a bit). But Cate was solid tonight “only” getting eight strikeouts, giving up four walks and never allowing back-to-back hits and getting three double plays from his defense behind him.

Cutters, curves, sliders, sleight-of-hand. Tim Cate used his full arsenal on Thursday night. Even the occasional 89-90mph fastball.

Thursday marked the first time that Cate has thrown a complete game in his career, tossing 109 pitches with just 66 for strikes as he leaned heavily on his off-speed stuff to entice them into weak ground balls and harmless pop-ups.

“Ya’ know he really didn’t have his best stuff and that just goes to show how good his stuff is,” said head coach Jim Penders. “He can make a really good lineup look not so good. But he went away from coach MacDonald’s pitch calls and every time he did that it probably cost him three or four more pitches. I thought he could’ve ended up around 85 or 90 pitches today.”

That UConn offense? Well the Dawgs’ bats came in hitting a very light .256. Yet, it was the “power-stick” of Alex LaFevre, who came in hitting .245 with zero home runs and just seven RBI all season, who blasted a three-run dinger in the third inning to account for all the runs UConn would need. LaFevre would also add a fifth inning double and a walk to his stat sheet.

“As soon as he hit that one out, everybody seemed to relax a little bit more,” catcher Zac Susi said. “It was great to see him get going. He’s got a good bat so it was awesome for him to get a knock like that.”

He’s Got LaFevre. Fifth-year senior Alex LaFevre – or “Grandpa” as he’s known – hit his first home run of the season to put the Huskies ahead for good.

Actually, the Huskies didn’t look much like a team that had a boney-armed batting average, gathering 11 hits off the Pirates, including a three-hit night from Susi and a two-hit night from Troy Stefanski. All nine Huskies in the batting order would reach base, including seven of them via base hits.

Susi was also vital behind the dish, flashing an impressive pop time, gunning down a pair of would-be base-stealers at third base to keep the Pirates in check.

“Zac looks like a different catcher than he did three or four weeks ago,” Penders said. “He’s really throwing great. Coach (Cliff) Godwin (ECU) really had his team playing aggressively and Zac was able to pounce on them and hold them in check.”

“When guys get on base it’s my job back there to control the running game,” Susi said. “It was great to help keep the pressure off Tim like that. It’s something I love to do.”

If Tim Cate wasn’t the star of the night, the fans in Dunkin’ Donuts Park were. This place was jammed with butts in seats and they seemed to be very into the game. UConn head coach Jim Penders said afterward, “When they announced the crowd as 2,828, I thought they were kidding. That crowd certainly seemed bigger and much louder than 28-28.”

The park is a brand new facility that just opened this year, albeit about two years later than planned due to some legal wrangling and miscues. But it is a beautiful park with all stadium seats, two levels, plenty of ritzy luxury suites and a big league feel. The double-A Hartford Yard Goats is the permanent tenant, but coach Penders hopes this can be a regular thing.

East Carolina and UConn in action at Dunkin’ Donuts Park in downtown Hartford. And yes, that’s the Hartford Insurance stag atop the grandstand roof there.

“I loved it,” Penders said. “It’s a beautiful ballpark and they really did it up right. It was a great experience and a great atmosphere for a game. I hope we can come back.”

It was a great showing by the Huskies, who reached the 30-win mark and remained one game back of USF in the American Athletic Conference standings tied with UCF and Houston. All four of those teams are sitting pretty for the post-season. Coach Penders likes his team but realizes there are some dents in the armor they have to address.

We’re not nearly as athletic in the lineup as we were backing 2010 and 2011,” Penders said. “But our starting pitching is as good as we’ve ever had. Those guys are all really competitive and are good pitchers. They are the reason we have a chance to beat anybody in the country. They keep us in every game.”

Along with Tim Cate, the Huskies post a really strong three-man rotation. The Saturday-Sunday starters for UConn are are junior RHP Wills Montgomerie, who goes into game two of the series with a record of5-3 and an ERA of 3.52, and freshman LHP Mason Feole, who posts 7-2, 3.38 numbers from his Sunday spot.

One thing that could be an Achilles Heel as the Huskies charge toward the post-season is if they get behind early in games. This team is a West Coast-type, station-to-station team that relies on doing the little things. They aren’t made for a floodgates, crooked-number type of comeback personality. But they are battle tested.

“If I haven’t gotten ulcers yet I probably won’t ever get them,” Penders said. “Because tonight was not typical of the way we have played. We have been in tight games all year long. We’ve actually struggled at times defensively a good bit but we’ve played really good D the last two or three games, just like tonight where we were turning double plays and throwing guys out.”

But there is obviously a bigger picture here that needs to be discussed. The Huskies came into the game with an RPI ranking of No. 41. Although it could be argued that they would fit the “bubble team” moniker here, that’s a pretty good RPI considering they had a rather unsexy 29-22 mark to show for it. When I asked coach Penders his thoughts on being ranked No. 41 in the RPI, one slot behind Tennessee, who had a 7-16 SEC record, he gave a frank response.

“I think if Tennessee was on the road for 51 of 82 days to start the season, you could say Tennessee deserves to be in over us,” Penders says coyly in defending his team. “From February 16th to May 8th we were gone 51 of those 82 days. It really wears on you. If there is another team out there that has done that, I’d like to see them.”

A full 19 of those now-30 wins have come away from home. That’s the fourth highest road win total in the country behind Oregon State, Texas Tech and St. John’s.

“It’s been a tough schedule and its helped us,” Penders said. “But I really think we are starting to get a second wind. We always seem to play our best baseball in the month of May because it’s warm and it makes a big difference going home at night and sleeping in your own bed.”

After the big Thursday night win the Huskies found themselves at No. 38 in the RPI. Stay tuned. Things could still end beautifully for these ugly ducklings.

UConn is playing it fast and loose as a team this year. Senior Aaron Hill (2) has been a great senior leader for the team, according to head coach Jim Penders.

 

LINESCORE:
E.C.U. – 000 000 000 – 0  5  0
UConn – 003 003 00x – 6  11  0

 

PITCHING
WP: Tim Cate, 4-3
LP: Jacob Wolfe, 4-4
Save: None

 

TOP HITTERS.
Pirates:
– Travis Watkins, 2-for-4

Huskies:
– Zac Susi, 3-for-4, RBI
– Alex LeFevre, 2-for-3, HR, 3RBI

 

RECORDS:
– East Carolina, 28-26, 6-16
– Connecticut, 30-22, 13-9

 

NOTES 
– All Eight Are In
The American Athletic Conference is ranked at No. 5 in the conference RPI right now. But coach Penders pointed out to me that the AAC is the only conference in the country to have all of its members ranked inside the Top 100 of the RPI. The lowest ranking team, as of this writing, was Memphis at No. 91.

 

– Didn’t Get To See The Big Horse
One of the bummers of Tim Cate tossing his first complete game is that I didn’t get the chance to see John Russell, who has 13 saves on the season, good for seventh nationally. Those 13 saves also have the strapping 6’3” righty tied for the single season record at UConn.

 

– Cate Stops A Streaker
ECU’s Eric Tyler, the Pirate three-hole hitter, had his 39-game streak of reaching base snapped with an 0-for-4 performance in game one vs. UConn. In fact, three of Cate’s eight strikeouts on the night came at Tyler’s expense. Tyler also had hits in 48 of his previous 52 games.

 

– Fourth Blanking Suffered, Fourth Loss to UConn
Thursday night’s 6-0 loss to Connecticut marked the fourth time this season that the Pirates have been held scoreless in a game. It was also the fourth time this season that the Huskies have beaten them. Back on the first weekend in April UC swept three games in Greenville, 3-2, 3-2 and 5-1.

 

COACH SPEAK
Caught up with UConn pitching coach Joshua MacDonald after the game, and was asking him about a meeting at the mound with Tim Cate with a man on first in the eighth inning which immediately led to Cate fielding a ball and turning it into a double play. After which, Cate turned and pointed at MacDonald in the dugout.

“He was shaking me off a lot. And Tim has a tendency to shake me when there’s nobody on or a guy on first. Well I thought he was costing himself a couple of pitches, trying to go with too many breaking balls and I thought they were sitting on him, so when I went out there I looked over at the scoreboard and I said, ‘Hey man, it looks like I’m doing a pretty damn good job for you right now, why are you shaking me so much? I think if you just gamble a little with a fast ball inside you can jam him.’ Sure enough, he jammed him and got a double play ball. That’s when he gave me the point and I said to myself, ‘Yeah, we’re eight innings in, I think I’m doing a pretty damn good job with you here.’ It was just one of those moments where you think this is why we do this, ya’ know?’

 

PICS
Some additional images from Thursday’s game at Dunkin’ Donuts Park in Hartford…

Through injuries and slumps, East Carolina’s expected Top 10 season has unraveled for them.

 

The UConn dugout and fans do some crazy dance during Zac Susi’s walk-up song. It was funny. Waaaaay better than Ole Miss and Miami’s “Love Is Gone” ditty.

 

Husky third baseman Willy Yahn seems like he’s been in Storrs for 10 years. Here he drops an RBI single into center field to add to the Huskies lead.

 

Senior second baseman Aaron Hill is one of those all-out hustle guys, who plays like every play is the last of his career. Coach Penders says simply, “I am going to miss his enthusiasm and energy next year.”

 

UConn’s bullpen comes rushing out from the right field bullpen and onto the Dunkin’ Donuts Park infield to celebrate the 6-0 win.

 

 

 

 

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