Leading up to UConn baseball opening day on Feb. 13 at Florida Atlantic, UConnHuskies.com will take an in-depth look at the 2015 squad with player profiles and position-by-position breakdowns. Up first, a look at the UConn starting pitchers and a feature on redshirt senior Jordan Tabakman.
By Chris Jones, special to UConnHuskies.com
STORRS, Conn. -- It has been said that you really get to know the true character of an individual when they are faced with adversity. For UConn baseball right-handed pitcher Jordan Tabakman (Pompton Plains, N.J.), the past few years have been full of challenges but also triumphs as he gears up for his final season wearing the UConn uniform.
If you told Tabakman a few years ago some of the things that he would have to deal with over his college career he probably wouldn’t believe you. Tabakman had a plan, a path, a dream that he was ready to follow. The dream is still intact but the path is far from what he expected.
Jordan Tabakman went to Pequannock Township High School in Pompton Plains, N.J. Tabakman starred in both baseball and basketball during his high school days.
“I played basketball and baseball, those are the two sports that I played my whole life,” said Tabakman. “Basketball was my favorite sport growing up but I was better at baseball so when I got to middle school I really put my focus on baseball. My aspirations were to play Division one college baseball.”
Tabakman thrived in both sports. On the diamond he pitched the team to the 2009 state championship, along joining the 100-Hit Club. In the gym Tabakman led Pequannock to a Sectional Championship, the first time in school history that was accomplished. After the end of his basketball career Tabakman became the all-time leading scorer in school history. A record that was broken in 2012 by a female very close to Tabakman.
“My sister Samantha passed me on the scoring list,” said Tabakman. “But I still have the guy’s record so I still got that.”
It was the summer prior to Tabakman’s junior year that Tabakman starting seeing his options start to play out in recruiting. He narrowed his choices down to three, including his dream school, North Carolina.
“I went to visit NC State, UVA and North Carolina. All three schools were incredible,” said Tabakman. “After I went to UVA I was really leaning towards them but my childhood dream was to play at North Carolina so it was going to be tough to say no to them. I ended up committing to UNC my junior year, so it was early but it was really exciting for me.
At that point everything was falling into place for Tabakman, he was ready to attend his dream school and play division one baseball at one of the top programs in the country. Unfortunately for Jordan that is when the adversity hit.
“It was a rough year for me, I didn’t perform as well as I wanted to in the fall,” said Tabakman. “I got back from winter break and got [mononucleosis] and missed a good chunk of the season. By the time I was ready to come back there was only a couple weeks left in the regular season and I chose to redshirt.”
As the season came to a close Tabakman was ready to turn the page and get ready for next season, but due to his shortened season and a rocky fall the Tar Heels chose to move on.
“It really killed me to not be able to be out there, that never had happened to me before and it was a tough year but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I learned about failure that season and how to deal with it. That was big for me.”
Tabakman wanted to continue to pursue baseball, so he started looking at potential schools that he would be able to transfer to.
“I contacted some local schools including UConn,” said Tabakman. “I had to wait on UConn because at the time they were playing in the Super Regionals, so Coach Penders said he would call immediately after their season was over.”
As Tabakman watched the Huskies in the Super Regionals he began to realize that this would be the place he wanted to end up.
“Seeing them in a Super Regional, my main goal is to go to Omaha and I thought my best chance to get there was to go to UConn.” said Tabakman. “When I went to visit UConn, Coach Penders was fully onboard with the process and was going to do whatever he could to get me cleared.”
“I was fortunate enough to get a second chance here at UConn,” said Tabakman. “Coach Penders and the coaching staff gave me that second chance, I can’t thank them enough for what they have done for me.”
Since arriving in Storrs, Tabakman has been reliable on the mound for the Huskies, splitting time both in the bullpen and the starting rotation. However, for Tabakman there have been injuries that he has had to deal with through the course of his career.
“It’s been really frustrating, I didn’t have to deal with injuries prior to college,” said Tabakman. “The injuries have been disappointing but I’m just doing everything I can to stay healthy in my final year.
There is no denying that when things have come together and Tabakman has been healthy he is one of the best pitchers in the conference. You can look no further that the 2013 season where Tabakman was a big part of the bullpen and rotation for the Huskies, appearing in 22 outings and holding a 2.57 ERA, a 6-2 record and five saves.
Two of Tabakman’s best starts came in the postseason when he picked up a semifinal victory in the 2013 Big East Tournament and then followed it up with another stellar performance in the NCAA Blacksburg Regional, pitching 9.0 innings and allowing only three runs to a potent Oklahoma Sooners lineup.
“I think everything just came together in 2013,” said Tabakman. My shoulder was still working its way back to 100 percent, during the season it was there but not fully there. By the end of the season though it felt great, I was able to put it all together and it was nice to be 100 percent.”
In order to boost his chances at a healthy season Tabakman has put in the work this offseason to get his body into shape.
“I had a chance to play in the Cape with the Bourne Braves but I decided to take the summer off and focus on getting my body to where it needs to be,” said Tabakman. “I worked with an instructor at UConn doing Yoga and my body feels incredible. I feel the best that I have in my entire life, I just want to continue to keep my body healthy by doing yoga every day and doing the things I need to do to stay healthy.”
Tabakman credits UConn Pitching Coach Josh MacDonald for helping him get to where he is right now.
“Coach Mac has been great for me, he was the first guy that watched me the summer before I came to UConn,” said Tabakman. “We’ve been together ever since I’ve got here, he has taught me a lot and has always pushed me. Even with the setbacks he is always there for me and talking to me and he has been a great friend and mentor of mine.”
MacDonald thinks that since Tabakman has stepped on campus his biggest development has come on his own.
“I think a big part of his development is just getting to know himself, know when he does get into struggles what he has to do to right himself, said MacDonald. “When you have a fifth-year senior it isn’t always the worst thing. There haven’t been many fifth-year seniors that I have had that have just been hanging around.
“I think when you have guys like that, nothing shocks them or fazes them, they know how to prepare themselves and there is that calming influence that I’ve done this, I’ve been through it. For Jordan there aren’t that many hurdles in front of him, I feel like he is ready to attack the next three months. I think his mindset is in such a good place right now that he is really excited for these next couple weeks.”
A few years ago Tabakman may have never guessed that his career would have taken him to UConn but for him everything has worked out perfectly.
“These are my brothers and I’m so glad that I ended up here. I’ve made life-long friends here and even with all the setbacks and challenges I’ve experienced with injuries and other stuff it has helped me grow as a person and mature.
“And it’s not over yet, we still got one more season to achieve our dream of getting to Omaha, said Tabakman. “And I still have a chance to go out there and help my team win any way possible.”
In addition to Tabakman, UConn brings back a massive arm in the starting rotation in the form of redshirt-senior Carson Cross (Brentwood, N.H.). The 2014 American Athletic Conference Preseason Pitcher of the Year, Cross missed the entirety of last season with shoulder surgery. His 2013 season was one of the best in program history, when he tossed 110.2 innings and recored a 9-4 record with a 2.44 ERA and 86 strikeouts.
“It’s really nice to have Carson back, that was a guy last year that we were really excited, the preseason conference pitcher of the year and I think not having him took the air out of the sails,” MacDonald said.
“This year there is that comfort there, I know he is coming off that injury so there is a little ambiguity of how it is going to be come Feb. 13. It’s nice to get him and his experience back,” UConn’s fourth-year pitching coach added.
“I’m excited, excited to get some competition back and face another team, another uniform, different guys, haven’t done that in a while,” Cross said.
“I feel back to normal with location and pitch sequences, I can do almost anything I want in term of pitch sequences. I can feel flaws which were harder to feel back in the fall. I’ve thrown about 25 innings since then and it feels good.”
MacDonald is pleased with the progress of Cross returning from the injury as well, saying: “From a feel stand point and a location and accuracy stand point he looks like our old guy. Six-foot-six throwing fastballs knee high to both parts of the plate, challenging hitters, it is something we are going to like.”
Cross was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 24th round of the 2013 MLB Draft, but elected to return to Storrs.
“It jacks us up, it shows how big the brotherhood is here at UConn and it just emphasizes team and family,” Tabakman said of Cross’ decision to return. “Carson wanted to come back and get to Omaha and we still have our chance this season to be able to do that. We are going to do it for each other, that’s what it’s all about.”
Along with Cross and Tabakman in the rotation, Penders and MacDonald expect sophomore Anthony Kay (Stony Brook, N.Y.) to complete the weekend trio. Kay made 18 appearances, including eight starts, as a freshman last season and compiled a 3.49 ERA in 67.0 innings.
“I feel good having the bulk of our starting rotation back, the three guys on the weekend line up pretty well with Carson, Jordan and Anthony. I’d like to leave Anthony in the starting rotation if we can,” Penders said.
“That means guys have to step up and pitch in big spots at the back end of games. But I feel really good in terms of a leadership, experience and talent stand point that we stack up really well with our starting rotation,” the skipper added.
“All year last season gave me a ton of confidence and experiences of getting the job done,” Kay said. The southpaw also reflected on the role Cross and Tabakman have played on his development.
“I try to pick up as much stuff as I can from guys like Jordan and Carson. Anthony Marzi was a big help for me last season being a fellow lefty and to see the competitiveness that he had.”
Also in the mix for starts, whether on the weekend or during resume-building midweek games, is sophomore righty Andrew Zapata (Staten Island, N.Y.). Primarily a weekend starter last season, Zapata finished his rookie campaign with a 2.57 ERA and held opponents to a .180 batting average against. His 5.7 hits allowed per nine innings was top-10 nationally.
“The teams that go deep and win this conference aren’t the teams with the big Friday ace; it’s the teams like Houston and Louisville who have three headed monsters. Every time you go out there you are going up against quality,” said MacDonald.
Cross doubled down on his pitching coach’s claim about the importance of starting depth, saying: “I’m very excited because any weekend any of us could pitch seven or more innings. If we can do that consistently it makes it a lot easier for our bullpen and a lot easier for our defense. Ultimately it gives us a great chance to win.”
“I’m hoping we have something where, when people are facing Carson on Friday and Kay/Jordan on Saturday or Sunday, that they don’t feel good about it. If Carson gets that win on a Friday that the opposing team really sees it as an uphill battle,” MacDonald said.