Year after year, Coach Jim Penders has been defying the odds and making the oft-ignored UConn Baseball program a constant threat in the landscape of NCAA College Baseball. If you haven’t heard that UConn Baseball is having another impressive season and is on pace to come close to their highest win total in program history, then now you know. The #16 team in the nation, the Huskies have been mowing down opponents and sit with a 42-10 record with just 4 games remaining in the regular season. They have clinched the Big East Regular Season Championship and given all the odds stacked against the UConn program, the sustained success is something to be admired. Take a few minutes and learn about the success of the UConn Baseball program.
Penders is a husky through and through. He made his first appearance for the Huskies as a player in 1991 when he was on the varsity team. He was the co-captain his senior year in 1994 and led the Huskies to a 26-19 record, a Big East Tournament title, and an appearance in the NCAA Regionals. That season Penders hit .354 with 7 HRs and 46 RBIs, but thankfully for the UConn Baseball program, his connection to the team was not ending with graduation. In 1997, Penders became a graduate assistant and then was named a full assistant coach in 1999. When long-time coach Andy Baylock left the program in 2003, Penders took the reigns and hasn’t looked back. In his 3rd decade associated with the program and his 19th season as head coach of the Huskies, the impact Penders has had on the hundreds of players at UConn is amazing. While getting players drafted isn’t his only goals, Penders has had 21 players make a AA or higher roster and 10 players make an MLB roster in his tenure and since 2004, 58 Huskies have earned signing bonuses. Not bad for a New England baseball program.
Penders is the son of another coach in the CT area. His dad, Jim Penders Sr, helped UConn reach the College World Series as a player in 1965 and was the baseball coach for East Catholic High School in Manchester, CT (my hometown) from 1969-2012 and won four state titles in his amazing tenure. As if that wasn’t enough, his grandfather, Jim, was the head baseball coach at Stratford High School in CT from 1931-1968 and also won four state titles. On top of that, his brother Tom and uncle Rob are/were also baseball coaches, Tom with several universities including URI. While a parent’s profession doesn’t always dictate a career path for a child, its hardly a surprise that Penders followed in his family’s footsteps.
Overall, Penders is 646-424-5 in his head coaching career all at UConn. He is a 5-time conference coach of the year (4 in the Big East and 1 in the American) and has taken teams to the NCAA Regionals 7 times in 17 eligible seasons (one canceled due to COVID) and a Regional appearance is looking likely this season. Since 2010, UConn has missed the Regionals just 4 times, and Penders has even taken UConn one-step from the College World Series, losing in the NCAA Super Regional in 2011 to the eventual National Champion South Carolina Gamecocks (a team with current Red Sox player Jackie Bradley Jr in the outfield). The accomplishments are impressive on their own, but when you factor in the challenges stacked against UConn, it’s down right miraculous.
As a New England school, the most obvious disadvantage for Penders and UConn is weather. With the season beginning in February, some years it can be impossible to have any outside training because the fields are frozen or covered in snow. UConn has to play the vast majority of the first month of the season on neutral or away fields in warmer climates. The amount of travel early in the season is taxing and it’s certainly a disadvantage to not play at home for weeks on end. The weather both impacts the current roster and impacts recruiting. If you’re a baseball player looking at a prospective college and you know on day 1 that you need to spend the first month+ of the season on the road, it doesn’t help. Another disadvantage for success is actually the Big East Conference. The return to the Big East was met with cheers of joy for every sport at UConn except the baseball program. The level of teams in the Big East is frankly, not great. That greatly impacts their strength of schedule and any loss to a conference opponent is a big mark on their resume.
Despite those challenges, Penders continues to bring in quality people and players and has seen a number of former players reach the majors. With the exception of 2014, Penders has led his squad to 30+ wins in every season since 2009 (except the shortened COVID year) and with his 42nd win this year, he’s now reached that plateau three times in his career. The constant success has not change Penders one bit, with his calm demeanor and unassuming presence.
If you haven’t had the privilege of watching this season’s UConn Baseball team, you’re missing out. As with teams of the past 10+ years, they are fun to watch and play fundamental baseball. It can be tricky to find the game streams, but if all holds as expected, UConn will have some very high-profile games coming up in the NCAA Regionals and potentially beyond. This team certainly has the potential to be the 2nd team in Penders’ tenure to reach the Super Regionals, but there is a lot of work left to do.
As with many of the recent rosters for UConn, they are full of pitching talent. As of May 15th, their three primary starting pitchers, Austin Peterson, Enzo Stefanoni, and Pat Gallagher all had 13 starts and ERAs under 3. Peterson has been electric and has 112 Ks in 88.1 innings, which Gallagher has 84 Ks in 77.1 innings. Justin Willis has emerged as a reliable closer for the Huskies, when the games are even that close, securing 13 saves while striking out 34 in 18.1 innings. A shoutout to Jack Sullivan, who has appeared in 16 games for the Huskies over 18.1 innings and has a 0.49 ERA. As a pitching staff, they have a 3.14 ERA, 18 saves, and 507 Ks in 467 innings while holding opponents to a .242 average.
Not to be outdone, UConn’s offense has had it’s share of impressive performances. As with most UConn teams, there is some balanced-power, with solid averages. Erik Stock is having another nice season for the Huskies with a .400 average, 9 HRs and 49 RBIs in 210 at-bats. He’s joined by Ben Huber, Casey Dana, and Matt Donlan with 9+ HRs and as a team, they are hitting .300 on the season. They are helped on the base path by David Smith, who has 19 stolen bases on the season in 22 tries and with a .286 average, he’s getting on base with regularity for the Huskies. Overall their offense is very solid, if not amazing, but when you hit .300 and your pitching staff is only allowing opponents to hit .242, good things tend to happen.
What makes all of this even more impressive is who is missing on the roster. Reggie Crawford, pitcher and first baseman for UConn, was the #4 overall prospect heading into the fall when he was sidelined and forced to miss the entire 2022 season thanks to an arm injury that led to Tommy John surgery. Just imagine what this team would look like with one of their best overall talents.
I, for one, will be following and cheering hard for this great group of kids and coaches. They have had a tremendous year thus far and look to close out their final four regular season games on the road (1 at Bryant and 3 at Georgetown) on route to another Regional appearance. Let’s go Huskies!