Since getting swept opening weekend, UConn has won six straight weekend series. The biggest reason for that? Senior right-hander Carson Cross. One of the top arms on 2013’s NCAA Tournament team, Cross lost 2014 to Tommy John but entered this season as the Huskies’ ace. He’s started each of the series openers in that string of series wins, and the Huskies have won every one of them. It’s taken some of the pressure off his fellow weekend starters Anthony Kay and Jordan Tabakman when it comes to taking home series wins. Coming into their home and AAC opener against South Florida this afternoon, the Huskies looked to make it seven in a row.
Besides those six straight series wins, UConn entered this one at 18-9, winners of 6 of 7 going back to the rubber game against Seton Hall on March 22. That stretch included midweek blowouts of Central Connecticut and Yale, a road series win at Tulane, and a come-from-behind win over Boston College on Tuesday. That win over the Eagles was the 400th for head coach Jim Penders, an impressive feat for a guy who’s been at the helm in Storrs since just 2003. It also saw second baseman Vinny Siena extend a hitting streak to 18 games and collect the game-winning RBI. Nico Darras’s two strong relief innings clinched the win.
On the other side, the Bulls entered the series at 20-9-1. First-year head coach Mark Kingston, who came over from Illinois State in the offseason, has had USF playing good baseball. That 20-win total comes against a top-50 schedule, per WarrenNolan.com. The Bulls beat Cal State Fullerton on opening day, swept Seton Hall in early March, and took a midweeker from Florida International two weeks ago. Like the Huskies, they got off to a winning start in conference play, sweeping Cincinnati at home. Ace Jimmy Herget had been putting up numbers on part with Cross’s. Both of them entered with just one loss, and that against a ranked team. Something had to give Thursday at J.O. Christian Field.
Things got underway at 3:00 in the afternoon, and through the first three innings, the game was shaping up to be another episode of the Carson Cross Show. He retired all nine batters, striking out three of them and inducing four of the others to ground out. Apart from one flyout in the 1st, nothing was really hit hard, and he was getting plenty of swings and misses with his slider.
Herget, meanwhile, was having trouble settling in. The Huskies got hard-hit doubles from Blake Davey in the first and Joe DeRoche-Duffin in the 2nd, but couldn’t push anything across. In the 3rd, the Huskies weren’t hitting much hard, but a bunt single, fielder’s choice, and a grounder through the right side gave them runners on the corners with one down. Davey came through with a lined single to left, and the Huskies were on top, 1-0.
Herget settled down, though, allowing nothing but a hit batsman in both the 4th and 5th. The Bulls, meanwhile, took a 2-1 lead. Cross was the victim of some tough luck in the 4th. When he got USF’s Kevin Merrell to chop on in front of the plate, Merrell’s bat double-hit the ball on his follow through, but the umpires missed it, and Merrell reached. He later came around to score the Huskies’ first run when Luke Borders doubled over Davey’s head in left. The Bulls took the one-run lead in the 6th on an errant throw down to third by UConn catcher Max McDowell.
Down 2-1, the Huskies responded in a big way, plating 5 in the bottom of the sixth. Herget hit a batter (McDowell) for the third straight inning to lead things off, and he got to third on an errant pickoff throw. Bryan Daniello followed that with a single to tie the game, then Willy Yahn singled him to third. With Jack Sundberg at the plate, UConn took a 3-2 lead on an ill-advised snap throw to third that skipped down the line, allowing Daniello to score. Herget then walked Sundberg and Siena, and Mark Kingston went to the pen.
Righty Michael Farley came in, and 3-4 hitters Melley and Davey cashed in on their chance to extend the lead. The big first basemen drew a walk to make it 4-2, then Davey’s big day continued when he drove in two more with a single through the left side. 6-2 Huskies after 6, and with Carson Cross on the mound, things felt pretty secure.
Credit the Bulls, though, as they scrapped their way back. Luke Maglich’s solo shot to left narrowed the lead to 6-3 in the 7th, prompting the UConn bullpen to start warming. Cross progressed through the rest of the inning cleanly, however, and came back out to retire nine-hole hitter Austin Lueck to lead off the 8th. At that point, Penders came out to take the ball. With lefty leadoff man Kyle Teaf coming up, this certainly seemed like a pre-planned move.
On came fire-throwing closer Patrick Ruotolo, who’d been lights out on the year. 10 innings of work, no earned runs, and three saves. None of that showed today, unfortunately for the Huskies. Ruotolo struck out Teaf, but a walk, two singles, and a three-run homer later, and USF led 7-6. They struck again with two down in the 9th, extending the lead to 9-6. UConn got baserunners on in the 8th and 9th, but couldn’t cut into the lead, and USF came away with a come-from-behind win.
Herget’s team may have come away with the win, but Cross outdeuled him. Four of the New Hampshire native’s seven full innings went 1-2-3, and he fanned 8. Herget, on the other hand, gave up six (all earned) in 5.2, while surrendering three walks and seven hits.
For two pitchers who’ve both had such success this year, it’s amazing how different these guys were. Cross, who stands at an imposing 6’6″, 205, comes right at you with an over-the-top motion. Straightforward four-seamer that he commands well to go with a hammer of a slider that he gets a lot of his swings and misses with. A pretty even ratio (8:7:6) of strikeouts to groundouts to flyouts on the day. Herget, on the other hand, was a lanky 6’3″, 165 with a herky-jerky motion to go with it. Mixed arm slots, often dropping down to a low 3/4 against righties. He could bring it when he wanted to, but usually relied on throwing a heavier ball in a sinker/slider mix. Eight groundouts against just two strikeouts on the day. (Perfect Game‘s Jheremy Brown (@JBrownPG) was at the game, so check out his timeline if you’re looking for more on these guys.)
Absolutely gorgeous at gametime: sunny and 57. Things cooled a bit as the game went on, but a beautiful day for baseball in early April.
The field itself was playable, thanks to a herculean effort from the groundscrew and everybody else down at UConn. That said, the grass wasn’t in the greatest shape. The game featured five errors, and guys were playing things cautious in the infield and outfield. So playable, yes, but not in perfect shape. With the risk of rain tomorrow, they’ve already moved things to Northborough.
Overall, J.O. Christian’s a good facility in some respects, and just average in others. Spacious dugouts, padded fences, a nice scoreboard, ample parking, and an enclosed press box are all pluses, as is the shiny new indoor hitting/pitching building right next door. That said, there’s room for improvement. No permanent bathrooms, all bleacher seating, and not much of an effort at a concourse area. There was some talk of a new facility in early 2012, after the playoff runs in 2010 and 2011, and the artist’s renderings had me pretty excited at the time, but since then, nothing. Maybe another playoff run this year could help get the ball rolling.
The loss puts the Huskies in a position they haven’t been in since opening weekend– they’ve got take both games on Saturday and Sunday to win the series. At home, it’s one they’d love to have, especially with a road series at #10 Central Florida staring them in the face next weekend. If the weather holds, they’ll be in Northborough Friday at 3 and back in Storrs Saturday at 1. If you’re in the areas, it’s worth beating the Easter traffic to go and see these games. The AAC has been one of college baseball’s top conferences this year, and the Huskies and Bulls are two of its most talented teams.