Dom Amore: How Jim Penders and the UConn baseball team shook off a nightmare and won the Big East

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UConn had struggled though a long, brutal weekend, every bit as brutal as college baseball observers anticipate when a team from these parts plays Texas Tech in Lubbock.

“An environment that couldn’t be less friendly,” coach Jim Penders said.

Three losses, two were close games.

Now the Huskies were rallying to get out of town with one win and took a two-run lead in the top of the 10th. But closer Caleb Wurster, nearing 60 pitches, was gassed, and the Red Raiders hit three consecutive homers, sending UConn off the field with the most excruciating loss imaginable. “It wasn’t fair, what we did to him,” Penders said. “We had no one left.”

When Penders saw Wurster walk off the mound, “chest out, shoulders back,” he was inspired, finding the words when his players gathered in the postgame huddle.

“Listen,” Penders told them, “these guys are an Omaha-caliber team year in and year out, the best of the best, and you went toe-to-toe with them. But I wasn’t ready to beat them — I wasn’t ready to beat them — but I’m going to get better, and we’re going to get better, and I don’t think they’re going to want to see us in regionals here in June.

“We’re a good team. We’ve got a chance to be great. Don’t let this define us.”

Coaching counts, and a coach’s words matter most at the worst of times. These words, from the winningest coach in the program’s 125-year history, reverberated throughout the rest of the season.

Penders’ ambitious early season schedule, Virginia, Southern Miss, Coastal Carolina included, was a bigger bite than the Huskies, who had been ravaged by COVID-19, were ready to chew, though they were rarely overmatched. The fourth loss at Lubbock on March 15 left them at 4-10, a deep hole from which to dig out.

“It staggered us,” Penders said, “but the kids got up and kept fighting. It was my fault, for scheduling the way that we did. But I think it’s paying dividends.

Four days later, the Huskies won at St. Joseph’s, Wurster getting the save. They emerged from the nightmare to win 26 of 32 games, the last seven in a row, and clinched the Big East regular season title on Saturday with a win over Seton Hall.

“We’re starting to see what we thought we were capable of doing,” Penders said. “We kept saying, ‘We still haven’t played our best.’ This weekend, we played our best.”

Fourteen of the Huskies’ 16 losses were by two runs or less. UConn won 10 of 11 before another COVID outbreak on April 10 halted, and nearly destroyed its season. Seven games canceled, the Huskies returned to split a series at Xavier. Then Butler had to cancel a series. As the season resumed, the Huskies had the dual challenges of playing the minimum 14 conference games to qualify for the Big East Tournament and finishing in the top four. Last Tuesday, they won at Rhode Island 15-6, then came home to rout Seton Hall four consecutive games, outscoring them, 48-9.

“The guys’ confidence is at a very high level,” Penders said. “It’s pretty awesome. The guys should feel good about themselves for 24 hours, then we get back to work because the real thing is right around the corner.”

UConn (30-16, 13-4 Big East) plays Xavier, the host school, on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. A seventh trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2010 beckons. The Huskies have risen into the top 25 in RPI, which would normally be lock territory for an at-large bid, though the disparate schedules muddle the usual selection metrics.

“I feel like we’ve done enough late in the season to make people say, ‘wow,’ Penders said.

The Huskies have a battery of pro prospects, pitcher Ben Casparius (7-4, 3.33 ERA), who has proven a durable ace, and Pat Winkel (.290, 11 homers), who has matured as a catcher and hitter. Both were Gatorade players of the year in Connecticut, and both are expected to be drafted within the first seven or eight rounds in July. Sophomore Reggie Crawford, the first baseman who can also pitch, is hitting .286 with 11 homers and 55 RBI in 46 games. On Friday, he drove one at least 450 feet out of the new Ellliot Ballpark, where UConn finished 16-1. “It just sounds different when he hits it,” Penders said.

Kyler Fedko hit .402 with 11 homers and 46 RBI. The Huskies are hitting .291 as a team; their opponents are hitting .218 as Austin Peterson (6-1, 2.75) and Pat Gallagher (5-1, 4.53) have established themselves as starters and Wurster, 4-1 with seven saves and a 1.89 ERA, has led an expanding group of trustworthy relievers.

And if Penders runs out of pitching, as teams often do in a double-elimination tournament, Crawford, who throws 97 mph from the left side, could be quite a secret weapon. He has 17 strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings.

It’s a strong mix of experience. Outfielder Chris Winkel, who returned to play his extra year, is hitting .318. Casperius played in the College World Series as a freshman, before transferring from North Carolina, and reliever Justin Willis (3-0, 1.84) transferred from Vanderbilt. “It means something to have those guys in our dugout,” said Penders, who got his 600th career win over the weekend.

The Huskies last won a regular season conference title in 2011, the year future major leaguers George Springer, Matt Barnes and Nick Ahmed led them to the super regional, as far as they’ve gotten in the modern, 64-team NCAA Tournament era. This team is reminiscent of that one, now that its talent is finally unmasked.

“We’ve really got a close-knit, connected group,” Penders said. “It just happened a lot later than normal. Another thing that’s really important, you feel an exuberance and a joy being around people in public places without masks. Now, it’s like, ‘Oh, here we are.’ We’re human again.”

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com.