For the 1st time since 2011, the UConn Huskies baseball team is headed to the NCAA Super Regionals. While some are shocked by their NCAA Regional victory as a #3 seed, fans of this team knew a Super was a strong possibility in 2022. After spending much of the year in the top 25, reaching as high as #13, the ridiculous strength of schedule and RPI metrics not only put the Big East Champs out of the opportunity to host a regional, they pushed them down the line to a #3 seed. With a chip on their shoulder they traveled to Maryland with a singular mission: win at all costs. Now, after going 3-1, including 2 wins against hosts #15 Maryland, Jim Penders and his team are playing next weekend.
The Huskies kicked off the weekend against #2 seed Wake Forest (and RPI #6 in the country). They were tasked with slowing down the powerful bats of the Demon Deacons who hit the 4th most HRs this season with 122. UConn ace Austin Peterson through 6 strong innings, allowing just 2 runs and striking out 11. The Husky offense beat up ACC Pitcher of the Year Rhett Lowder for 7 runs and 11 hits in 6.1 innings and looked to be on their way to an easy W. Unfortunately, nothing is easy in the postseason. The UConn bullpen struggled, as Devin Kirby allowed 4 runs and Wake tied the game at 7 in the 8th inning. Thanks to a Ben Huber RBI double and a shutdown bottom of the 9th from closer Justin Willis, the Huskies pulled out a huge 8-7 victory, keeping them in the winners bracket.
Following the Maryland spanking of LIU in their first game 23-2, it was a matchup against the hosts for UConn. While Wake Forest was #4 in the country in HRs, Maryland was #2, only behind the #1 overall team in the country Tennessee. UConn was tasked with holding down an offense that scores in bunches in their small home park. The Huskies got a tremendous start from their #2 starter Pat Gallagher, a 7 inning, 2 run, 6 K performance, shutting down the Terrapin offense. It was a 2-2 game in the bottom of the 7th when UConn added 3 runs thanks to a Matt Donlan 3-run bomb. The Huskies added 4 insurance runs in the 8th to hit double digits, which turned out to be useful as Maryland mounted a 3-run 9th, but fell short as UConn won 10-5. The 2nd straight win sent Maryland to an elimination game and put UConn in the driver’s seat to win the regional.
Thanks to their 2-0 record, UConn had to be beaten twice in order to be eliminated from the regional. After Maryland dispatched Wake Forest in the afternoon elimination game, the Sunday night pressure was on the hosts. The rematch between the Terrapins and Huskies was an epic battle. Maryland came out of the gates hot with a HR and 3 runs in the first. They added a 4th run in the 5th and seemed to be asserting themselves. Then came a huge 4-run 6th for the Huskies, tying the game. Maryland plated 2 in the 7th and UConn once again countered with 2 in the 8th. The game was hanging on every pitch and despite opportunities for both teams, the game dragged into extra innings. With pitching limited Maryland was able to string together some baserunners and ultimately win on a walkoff in the bottom of the 11th inning. The hosts had life and it all came down to one game with the winner going to the Super Regionals.
Monday night started with a bang for Maryland as they scored one on a big HR in the top half of the 1st. The bottom half however, could not have been much better for the Huskies. A depleted Maryland pitching staff started Andrew Johnson, who did not allow a hit in 2/3 of an inning, but walked 4 and ultimately was charged with 4 runs. His replacement, Sean Heine, allowed the first hit of the game for the Huskies and one of the biggest hits of the season, a Matt Donlan grand slam. The Huskies walked away with 6 runs on 1 hit, and were on their way. UConn added 1 in the 3rd and 2 in the 4th to go up 9-1, but with this prolific Maryland offense, you just felt that wasn’t enough. After allowing 4 in the top of the 5th thanks to some shaky Husky defense, they added one more in the bottom half to bring the lead to 5, 10-5. After adding 2 in the 7th and 1 in the 8th, Maryland was only down 2 with 3 outs remaining. UConn was the beneficiary of a correct, but rarely called runner interference call in the top of the 8th that wiped a run off the board and kept the game at 10-8. Closer Justin Willis got a huge groundball out to end the inning after the call and that halted Maryland’s comeback attempt. Maryland fans will be talking about that call for years and rightfully so. After UConn added another insurance run in the bottom of the 8th, closer Justin Willis absolutely dominated the Terrapins, striking out the side to send the Huskies to the Super Regional.
The weekend was a phenomenal display of what UConn Huskies baseball represents. The pitching staff was tough and gritty against incredibly impressive and powerful offensive opponents and the lineup hit top to bottom. An asset for this team, the starters shined for the most part and showed off their depth in 4 games, something that separates good teams from great ones. The Huskies offense grinds at-bats and despite not having the overall power of a Wake or Maryland, have guys who work counts and get big hits when they need them. The lineup produced 1-9 throughout this weekend with guys like SS Bryan Padilla stepping up and driving balls all over the field and even 9-hole hitter Zach Bushling coming through with clutch hits and RBIs. The lineup puts pressure on opposing pitchers to make good pitches and jumps all over mistakes. They are not to be overlooked.
The program Jim Penders has built at UConn is nothing short of remarkable. To take a school in the Northeast and make them a perennial NCAA Regional contender against all odds is something to admire. UConn is now in a position to continue proving people wrong and upsetting opponents next weekend and perhaps beyond. Let’s go Huskies!