Last year when Huskies pitcher Ryan Moore ’13 (CLAS) stepped onto the New York Yankees’ training complex in Tampa, Fla., he summed up his feelings about the start of a new baseball season this way: “Dirt is awesome.”
“There’s no substitute for dirt on the spikes,” says Coach Jim Penders, ’94 (CLAS), ’98 MA, who begins his 10th season leading the Huskies on Feb. 15, when the baseball team starts the 2013 season in Dunedin, Fla. against Purdue.
Outfielder Billy Ferriter ’13 (CLAS) and second baseman LJ Mazzilli ’13 (CLAS), a pre-season All-America selection and pre-season Big East Player of the Year, hope to lead the Huskies back to the NCAA tournament after falling short in 2012, the first time the seniors did not reach the postseason since arriving in Storrs. They are the only remaining starters in the lineup from the Huskies’ historic 2011 NCAA Super Regional squad.
Mazzilli, the Huskies’ leading hitter in 2012 with a .339 batting average and .548 slugging percentage, was drafted by the Minnesota Twins last spring, but decided to return to Storrs for his senior year after working to improve his defensive skills.
“I want the ball hit to me every day,” Mazzilli says of the confidence he has developed in his defensive skills. “I never focused fully on defense. I used to be more concerned with my offense. Now I take a lot more pride in my defense.”
Penders says the Huskies, picked fourth in the Big East preseason poll, will have more offensive punch this season and expect to put more pressure on opposing teams, while also being an improved team on defense.
“We should be able to score runs and drive some people in,” he says. “I think our team speed is above average. We have some guys who can steal bases and go from first to third. We’re going to encourage that. We’re going to be much better defensively than we were last year.”
Penders has added two versatile and talented freshmen infielders, Vinny Siena ’16 (CLAS) and Bryan Daniello ’16 (CLAS), who are competing for playing regularly at third base, and first baseman Michel Habzda ’14 (CLAS), who joined the squad from UConn’s Avery Point team. Sophomore Connor David ’15 (CLAS) and freshman Max McDowell ’16 (CLAS) are competing to become the starting catcher.
“In any sport, defense wins championship,” says shortstop Tom Verdi ’14 (CLAS). “It’s huge to have LJ back, and he’s worked hard on his defense. We’ve got solid corner guys now. We’ve got young catchers working hard. I’m excited about this defense.”
Penders says the biggest question for the Huskies this season will be pitching, following the departure of Scott Oberg ’12 (CLAS) and David Fischer ’12 (CLAS) to the major leagues. The two combined for 10 of the team’s 31 wins in 2012. The returning hurlers were responsible for more than 70 percent of the Huskies’ innings pitched last year, but had an overall record of 18-20.
The likely anchor of the pitching staff will be left-hander Anthony Marzi ’14 (CLAS), who struck out 64 batters, while walking 20 in 98.2 innings of work. Marzi’s 3-8 win-loss record in 2012 is deceptive, as his best pitching fell on days when the Huskies’ offense was flat, even as his pitching improved the longer he was on the mound.
Junior lefty Brian Ward ’14 (CLAS), senior right-hander Pat Butler ’13 (CLAS), and freshmen Willie Nastasi ’16 (CLAS), a left-hander, and Michael Niego ’16 (CLAS), a right-hander, are expected to round out the starting rotation, along with redshirt sophomores Carson Cross ’15 (CLAS) and Jordan Tabakman ’16 (CLAS). The bullpen will have lots of competition behind two senior right-handers Dan Feehan ’13 (CLAS) and Will Jolin ’13 (CLAS) and Moore, who last year also played right field but now will be on the mound full-time. Seven sophomores and freshmen will also vie for playing time.
“I think a lot of [the pitching] will be decided in the first month of the season and we’ll figure it out from there,” says Penders. “Marzi, Ward, Cross, and Tabakman all have had their moments in preseason to give me some confidence. It’s just a matter of seeing consistency from them. We have some quality options in the bullpen. I think we have some strike throwers. I don’t think we have any dominant pitching as of yet, but we have the pieces that could be some contributors toward the middle and end of the season.”