Update, May 27, 2011:
The Huskies baseball team takes on Notre Dame for the second time Friday at 6 p.m. in a Big East Baseball Tournament elimination game after losing to Seton Hall in 12 innings in Clearwater, Fla., on Thursday. UConn (40-16-1) took a 3-2 lead in the top of the 12th inning, but Seton Hall (31-23) answered in the bottom of the inning as a hit batter and a walk scored two runs, giving the Pirates the victory.
The Huskies baseball team, ranked No. 22 nationally in USA Today/ESPN and No. 15 in Baseball America, enters the Big East Tournament May 25 as the team to beat, after ending regular season play over the weekend by taking two of three games at Cincinnati.
Top-seeded UConn, which posted a 22-5 conference record, 39-25-1 overall, will face No. 8 Notre Dame, 13-13/22-7-1, at 8 p.m. at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla., in the opening round of the double-elimination conference championships (May 25-29). Only the top eight teams of the 12 conference baseball members qualify for the tournament and the chance for the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, which begins June 3-6 with regional play and continues through to the College World Series June 18-28.
Head coach Jim Penders says the leadership of junior pitcher Matt Barnes and junior outfielder George Springer have helped the Huskies through the team’s early season struggles and critical times following the loss of junior shortstop Nick Ahmed, a team captain who was lost for the end of the regular season after suffering a collapsed lung during a base-running collision on April 25.
“When our captain went down, I was very concerned about a lack of leadership on the field,” says Penders, who was named Coach of the Year in the conference for the second consecutive year, and the third time overall during his eight seasons leading the team. “Nick is a coach on the field for us. However, guys have taken turns picking up the slack, and one can’t overstate how important the performances of Matt and George have been in his absence.”
Barnes, 11-3 on the year with a 1.11 earned run average, and Springer, the Huskies’ all-time home run leader, finished regular season conference play with a .379 batting average. Both earned Big East Weekly Awards and Honor Roll citations in helping lead the Huskies to the team’s first regular season conference championship this year.
Both Barnes and Springer were unanimous selections to the All-Big East first team, while nine other Huskies were also selected to all-conference post-season honors. Barnes was named Big East Pitcher of the Year, and Springer was selected as the conference’s Outstanding Player of the Year.
The Huskies dominated conference play, winning 15 of 16 games at J.O. Christian Field since April 2 and posting a 20-6 record on the road in 2011, and led the conference in team batting at .314 and team pitching with an earned run average of 2.28.
In addition to Barnes, who pitched 105 innings and struck out 97 batters, UConn relied primarily on redshirt senior Greg Nappo (9-2, 2.97), freshman Brian Ward (4-1, 3.09), and redshirt senior Bob Van Woert (4-0, 1.77) for strong starting pitching, with relief help from Kevin Vance, second in career saves for the Huskies, who earned 12 saves with an ERA of 1.19.
With Springer leading the way at the plate, the Huskies got on base often, with junior third baseman Ryan Fuller setting UConn’s single-season record for doubles with 22 while batting .302 overall and sophomore second baseman LJ Mazzilli spraying 40 hits – third in the conference – while hitting .335. Senior first baseman Mike Nemeth (.335) had 43 runs batted in, while senior Doug Elliot was among the conference’s top hitting catchers (.342 Big East, .320 overall).
Nappo, Elliot, Nemeth, Mazzilli, Fuller, and Ahmed were named to the All-Big East second team, while junior outfielder John Andreoli and junior designated hitter Tim Martin were third team selections.
“For the most part, we have a veteran team with a lot of experience,” Penders says of the Huskies and the team’s ability to focus on what is needed to win. “They didn’t get rattled by our start, and we also were able to overcome several obstacles as a team with some good old-fashioned mental toughness.”
The Fighting Irish earned a spot in the tournament on the last day of the regular season, edging Louisville 2-1, just one of 17 games they played that were decided by a single run. Notre Dame is led by freshman first baseman Trey Mancini (.333, 9 HR, 34 RBI), senior pitcher Brian Dupra (3-6, 3.06 ERA), and junior relief pitcher Will Hudgins (4-0, 1.78 ERA).
The winner of the UConn-Notre Dame game advances to the winner of the No. 4 West Virginia (14-13/28-25)-No. 5 Seton Hall (14-13/29-23) game on Thursday at 8 p.m. The losers of both games play each other at 5 p.m. the same day.
Penders says the Huskies have proven they know how to win. He sees no need to do anything different in the post-season.
“We’ve figured out a way to win 31 games in the last 37 we’ve played,” he says, adding the sports adage: “We’re gonna dance with the girl that brung us.”
UConn’s postseason games can be heard live on WTIC.com as well as WHUS.org/91.7 FM. Live statistics are available, as well as a free webcast at BIGEASTBaseball.com.