Written by Chris Jones, Special to UConnHuskies.com
STORRS, Conn. - Whether he is fine-tuning, adjusting or tweaking, UConn senior OF/DH Joe DeRoche-Duffin is consistently trying to problem-solve and seek out the best solution. A lot of the time for DeRoche-Duffin this work doesn’t come anywhere near the field. An avid car junkie, DeRoche-Duffin has gotten his mind off of the game by getting under the hood and getting his hands dirty.
“It is my release,” said DeRoche-Duffin. “Baseball is my release from everyday life. Cars are my release from baseball. It is a passion I’ve always had and will continue to be a passion for the rest of my life. It’s not my hobby, it’s a lifestyle.”
Before he was stepping in the batter’s box, DeRoche-Duffin was learning all he could about cars. Soaking up as much knowledge as he could when he was a kid.
“I was born with oil in my veins and gears in my head,” joked DeRoche-Duffin. “My dad is going to be reeling in his chair when he reads this and my mom is going to agree with me. But by the time I was three years old I could tell you each emblem as a vehicle drove by.”
“My dad was a big car guy, we had a lot of classic cars, we built classic cars and we had race cars. We would take things apart and put them back together and make them better.”
Though he had such a passion for cars, DeRoche-Duffin also developed a love for the game of baseball. With the geographic advantage of growing up in southern California, he was able to go out and play baseball throughout the year.
It’s an everyday thing, its 365/24/7,” said DeRoche-Duffin. “It’s so much fun, you never have to sit inside and look at the snow. I think it was integral in my development.”
As DeRoche-Duffin got older he hit a crossroads where he had to decide whether he wanted to pursue his love of cars and Go-Kart racing or if he wanted to take the baseball route.
“At 12 years old, my dad said, “Do you want to do Go-Kart racing or do you want to play baseball?” I decided on baseball and I think it’s been working out.”
DeRoche-Duffin thrived in high school, playing baseball at Orange Lutheran and then later at Park Villa. His performance on the field landed him a scholarship offer from UC-Santa Barbara, which he accepted early on in his senior year.
But at UCSB DeRoche-Duffin had to navigate through some bumps in the road.
“I think it was a great situation, it helped me with adversity,” said DeRoche-Duffin. “I didn’t play very much, I sat on the bench, worked my butt off and wasn’t rewarded for it. But because I sat there, I saw, I took in. I wanted to learn from everything around me, and tried to pick everybody’s brain, I think that helped me when I went to Cypress.”
DeRoche-Duffin went to Cypress College knowing that if he was able to produce, that he would have an excellent shot at getting back to a Division I school. That school turned out to be UConn.
“If you live in California you know OCC, Cypress and RCC,” said DeRoche-Duffin. “If you play well at those three schools you are going to D1. So I knew I was going somewhere else but wasn’t sure where.”
“I pretty much talked to [Coach] Hourigan the entire time. You guys already knew there was a pipeline from Cypress.”
“I wanted to be surrounded by a good support system and friends that would help me be a good baseball player and better person.”
Joining UConn, DeRoche-Duffin immediately wanted to prove himself and produce for the Huskies. He had a great series against Siena going 5-10 with eight RBIs against the Saints. But overall DeRoche-Duffin wasn’t thrilled with his start. But on March 22 against Seton Hall, a hit-by-pitch to the face sixth inning seemed to change the season for him.
“I think it was a blip on the radar, having to sit out a couple of games,” said DeRoche-Duffin. “I think it was a minor situation but it was just enough to change my mindset throughout the season. Because at the time I was hitting .220-.230 not being a good producer for the team.”
“I remember sitting there in the press box at CCSU in 35 degree weather with howling winds and it was just that need to be out on the field. I felt really torn that I couldn’t be out there, it hurt inside. I hated not being able to contribute. I became more focused. I had an extreme focus at the plate, in the workouts and overall on the field.”
At the time, DeRoche-Duffin wasn’t expected to make the trip to New Orleans to play the first conference series of the year against Tulane. And for the first two games, he did not play.
“I didn’t think I was going on the Tulane trip, I was surprised by that,” said DeRoche-Duffin. “I didn’t think I was going to be ready. But I went and Sunday I was finally ready to play.”
The game turned into an emotional battle that became an instant-classic. The Huskies trailed 3-2 going into the ninth inning. In the eighth inning, Blake Davey appeared to hit a home run off the netting in left center field but the umpires ruled it a double. The home run would have tied the game.
Instead, the Huskies trailed against one of the best closers in the country, Ian Gibaut. DeRoche-Duffin led off the inning for UConn.
“We were extremely emotional,” said DeRoche-Duffin. “But it was in the past. My job was to just get on base. I was in a 3-2 count. Was just trying to make contact with the ball and I was lucky enough to put the barrel on it.”
“I was surprised the ball carried that far. That was a big turning point in my season. From being hit in the face the previous series to hitting a home run like that, in the rubber match of a series like that. I think it changed the course of my season.”
With the game-tying home run from DeRoche-Duffin, the Huskies rallied for a couple more runs and eventually a series-win against Tulane.
DeRoche-Duffin took off from that point and was one of the best hitters for UConn during the course of conference play. He hit .333, with six doubles, four home runs and 16 RBIs in 20 conference games played.
DeRoche-Duffin was one of the best clutch hitters on the Huskies last season and put the finishing touches on the lasting moment of the season in the conference tournament against Tulane. The Huskies were losing 6-2 with six outs left in their season. In the eighth inning the Husky bats came alive. A two-run triple from Vinny Siena, followed by an RBI double by Bobby Melley, all-of-a-sudden made it a 6-5 game. DeRoche-Duffin then stepped to the plate.
“The guy [Gibbs] had a good curveball and I had been struggling with the curveball all season,” said DeRoche-Duffin. “So he goes 0-0 curveball, strike one, 0-1 curveball, strike two. Then he throws a fastball up near my face and then he just goes back to the breaking ball.”
“I’m thinking two strikes, if it’s close, I’m swinging. I swung and I don’t know how it happened. I surprised myself, it was an amazing feeling. I kept thinking it was a dream. I had never hit a home run in that type of situation. Tournament, season, everything on the line, to put our team ahead. I still get goosebumps about it.”
DeRoche-Duffin ended the season hitting .271 with 13 doubles, 11 HR’s, 39 RBIs. He slugged a team-leading .541, and had a .416 on-base percentage. Heading into 2016, DeRoche-Duffin is continuing to tinker and make minor corrections to his approach and swing.
“I would say mostly mechanics at the plate, so that I can be more consistent,” said DeRoche-Duffin. “Just making more consistent contact with the barrel, cutting down the strikeouts. Just trying to do as much damage as I can on the first couple pitches and then toning it down and just making contact with two strikes. If I do that I will be fine.”
DeRoche-Duffin hit a roadblock over the summer when competing with the Rochester Honkers of the Northwoods League. While playing first base, he was injured when going for a pop up over by the dugout.
Unfortunately, when he got back to Storrs he found out it was more serious than originally anticipated and DeRoche-Duffin was limited for fall ball. He is healthy now and excited to be back out there and make the transition to the outfield.
“I actually do feel comfortable out there, because I played all of summer in right field,” said DeRoche-Duffin. “I’ve pretty much been there all of my life. I played first and right field in high school and I’m comfortable out there, I can make more of an impact out there than I can as DH.”
Just like when he is working on his cars, DeRoche-Duffin is excited to put all the pieces together and see what product UConn has out on the field. DeRoche-Duffin hopes that the finished product will lead to the one thing he wants to accomplish.
“A championship. It’s not individual goals but team goals,” said DeRoche-Duffin. “If we win a championship, I will look back at my senior year as something special. It could be a Conference championship, Regional championship, Super Regional. As long as we have a championship.”
It is almost time for DeRoche-Duffin and the Huskies to pursue a championship as the preseason winds down. Time to make those last few modifications, get some polish and hit the road. No one quite knows how well it will run but there is always a chance to head back to the garage and make the necessary adjustments.
“We talked about this yesterday, said DeRoche-Duffin. “We need to have that microscopic focus. We need to separate everything out and take it one weekend at a time. You win that the first weekend and then the next and all of a sudden, if we do that, we will win a championship.”