As the Husky baseball team has enhanced its national profile over the past three years, consistency has been its hallmark. But the ebb and flow of a baseball season can be a roller coaster ride, with spurts of wins mixed with strings of losses, as it is proving to be for head coach Jim Penders’ squad in 2012.
“We can’t figure out who we’re going to see each day,” Penders says of his team, which has scratched out enough wins to tie for second place in the Big East Conference, with a 12-6 record, 24-20 overall, as it prepares to host Cincinnati for a three game series this weekend. “We’re still uneven in our performance. It’s difficult as a coach because you preach process. We’ve had terrible process but still are getting good outcomes.”
The Huskies sent nine players from the 2011 team to Major League Baseball, including two first round draft selections, so it is no surprise that the team has worked to find chemistry, which has led to some inconsistent play.
“We’re not going to be a good defensive team, but will continue to work at it,” says Penders. “We’ve been able to out-hit and out-pitch teams. You’re going to go into offensive slumps. We’re hard to figure out. As disappointed in our play as I’ve been, I’m pleased with our coming back from behind.”
At the Nike Showcase in Oregon in early March, the Huskies trailed Oregon State 3-1 after four innings, but fought back to earn a 6-3 win, which Penders described as “a great win, one of our best games.” That weekend, UConn also beat No. 22 Oklahoma 8-7.
During recent Big East play, the Huskies had what Penders described as “two ugly games” against Rutgers that they won by one run, They then traveled to No. 23/20 Louisville and dropped two games, before winning the last game of the series.
“We’ve been able to gut out a lot of tough conference wins,” says Penders. “That bodes well for postseason.”
Penders credits the core of his lineup for keeping the Huskies moving forward this season, particularly his senior leaders.
“Ryan Fuller ’12 (CLAS), Tim Martin ’12 (CLAS), and Billy Ferriter ’12 (CLAS) have been excellent the past month and a half,” he says. “We have a core of performers and some new players give us a nice lift – Stanley Paul ’13 (CLAS) gives us an offensive lift and Jon Testani ’15 (CLAS) has huge hits for us. But you can’t rely on freshmen to win. The guys who have done the most are the senior captains [Fuller and Joe Pavone ’12 (BUS)].”
Fuller is hitting .325, with 3 home runs and 30 runs batted in, and catcher Joe Pavone has rebounded from last year’s knee injury to hit .290 and drive in 18 runs.
Then there is junior LJ Mazzilli ’13 (CLAS), who Penders says is meeting the preseason praise he received as one of college baseball’s most talented prospects. Last season he was an All-Big East Second Team selection and honored as a NEIBA Second Team All-Star.
“LJ leads with his performance. He’s done a very good job. There are a lot of expectations on him to be one of the best players in the conference,” Penders says. “He’s risen to that and embraced it in the process of fulfilling the prophecy of being one of the elite players in the conference and in the country. Just his ability alone can carry you. He’s going to have to get hot if we’re going reach our goals this year.”
The son of former Major League Baseball player, coach, and manager Lee Mazzilli, LJ leads the Huskies in slugging percentage (.584) and has posted a .331 batting average with 9 home runs and 33 RBIs, despite the fact that he has moved from leadoff hitter to batting third, and opposing pitchers are challenging him on every pitch.
“Last year as leadoff, I was trying to get on base a little more, swinging at first pitch strikes,” Mazzilli says. “Now I’m getting pitchers starting leaving things up. I feel like I see [everything but] the kitchen sink up there. You‘ve really got to trust yourself that you can hit whatever they throw in the strike zone.”
Mazzilli says he has embraced his role as a leader on the young team, and is trying to lead by example.
“I’ve learned a lot being here for three years. You have to lead by example going out by just hustling,” he says. “Hustling takes no talent, my Dad always says; just playing the game hard and feed off of [other] people. It’s not just me; it could be a freshman running and diving into first base trying to get a single. The energy picks up from everyone in the dugout.”
Only the top eight teams in the conference will go to the Big East Tournament May 23-27 in Clearwater, Fla. After the series with Cincinnati (currently in last place), the Huskies will have conference series against South Florida (tied with UConn in second place) and Notre Dame (seventh place), along with single out-of-conference games against Northeastern and Rhode Island.
With an overall record that likely will not earn an at-large bid to the NCAA World Series, Penders says his team remains focused on its first goal to win the Big East regular season title and be in position to play in the Big East Tournament.
The Huskies will host Cincinnati this weekend on Saturday for a doubleheader at Dodd Stadium in Norwich starting at 1 p.m. and then on Sunday at J.O. Christian Field in Storrs at noon. Saturday’s doubleheader will be broadcast on WTIC Radio. Those games will also be broadcast on WHUS, which will broadcast Sunday’s game as well. WTIC will broadcast the game against Rhode Island on May 15 at 11 a.m. and the game against Notre Dame on May 18 at 6 p.m., as well as the Huskies’ games during the Big East Tournament.