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Catching Up With UConn Baseball

February 10, 2013

Whaddaya Know?  It's Baseball Season Again

I don't know.  I don't know.

That is precisely the way I wish I could answer everyone's question about how our season will be.  It is not anyone's fault, but everybody I see lately asks the same thing...

My neighbor catches me picking up the newspaper off the doorstep, and from across our driveways bellows, "Hey, Jim, how is the team shaping up?"

Guy at the dry cleaner asks, "Tuesday okay for the shirts?  How you guys gonna be this year?"

Reporter poses the question, "So, who is going to emerge as your closer?"

It doesn't stop when I get home either.  Hank will pepper me with, "Dad, who's hitting fourth?  Who is going to pitch on the weekends?  Who's gonna get Fischer and Oberg's innings?"  It's almost a relief to hear what's on Tess's mind.  I can always count on her, "Dad, can I have a phone?"

Even coaches who should know better make small talk with similar queries.  At our coaches convention in January, synthetic fibers, goatees, spit cups, and identical conversations infest the hotel lobby and elevators every year.  "Where do you guys open?  [Insert warm Southern or Western destination here] Nice.  How you gonna be?"  The difference is when we ask each other, we know not to listen to the response.  That's because we all realize that what we coaches think we know doesn't really matter before the season begins.  It's just like when the players swear we have the "best chemistry ever" in November, and December, or at any point before a travel list is posted, a veteran gets benched for a rookie, or we lose three in a row.  It's all just wasted breath.

Let's take last year as an example.  Here's a fictitious Question/Answer session with me from one year ago today:

Q:  Coach, how are you going to use Oberg?
A:  I have no idea.  He's coming off of Tommy John and he could barely walk fifteen months ago.  I just hope his bulldog mentality is going to be useful in some role.



Hindsight being 20/20:  Scott Oberg was as dominant a pitcher as anyone to toe the slab in college baseball during 2012, and he carried that dominance over to the Colorado Rockies organization this past summer.

Q:  You have seniors at the corner infield spots and at catcher, a junior at second, and an experienced sophomore at short.  Defense shouldn't be a problem should it?
A:  You're right we've got a lot of graybeards in key spots.  We also have a great defender in centerfield too.  We should catch and throw it well.

Hindsight being 20/20:  Remember Richard Dawson turning around to look at the Family Feud tote board and saying, "Survey said!?" Loud Buzzer and a Big X on that one.  We couldn't catch a cold, and if throwing it well meant hurling it over the cutoff man and into the second row, we were great.  A team fielding percentage of .957 would indicate otherwise.

Q:  Coach, you lost a ton of innings from a super-regional team, can pitching really be considered a strength with Matt Barnes, Greg Nappo, Kevin Vance, Elliot Glynn all in pro ball now? 
A:  Jeez, maybe we should call off the season.  When you put it like that, I should probably think about selling insurance.

Hindsight being 20/20:  Pitching was what carried us during the meat of our season.  While our defense struggled all year, we were able to pitch when it mattered most.  With a team ERA that was second in the conference in Big East games, our arms didn't disappoint.

Q:  Which freshmen will be cracking the lineup immediately?
A:  Well, Alex DeBellis was a force to be reckoned with in the fall, and we expect big things from him.  Beyond him, Testani and Yavarone should contribute. 

Hindsight being 20/20:  Of the three rookies I mentioned, Jon Testani and Eric Yavarone both produced the most, and a newcomer I didn't talk about was second on the whole team in batting average at .333, and didn't commit an error.  Connor David worked himself into opportunities behind the plate and was a reliable bat off the bench.

Q:  With All-American Kevin Vance in the White Sox organization, who is going to close?
A:  Well, Ryan Moore is going to get opportunities early on.

Hindsight being 20/20:  Ryan Moore made more than 30 appearances in the batting lineup during the course of the season.  He did close out our first victory of the season in relief of a stellar Brian Ward effort against Indiana, and had eight appearances in '12 as a pitcher.  However, he played more as an outfielder than as a pitcher, and finished the year with 17 runs scored, 6 stolen bases, and exactly 0 saves in 0 save opportunities.

Q:  Anthony Marzi has come on in the fall and preseason to emerge as a potential Big East starter.  What does he have to do to hold down a weekend role?
A:  Anthony works extremely hard at his preparation, and while his stamina is excellent, he hasn't gone more than a few innings at a time in our uniform.  We won't know if he can go deep in games until he proves he can do it. 

Hindsight being 20/20:  The lefty from Berlin proved he was our most consistent starter, and despite getting almost no run support, he threw three complete games and was durable too, with an average of close to seven innings per start in his fifteen appearances.

Q:  What's your lineup look like?
A: Billy leading off playing center, followed by Martin at third, LJ at second, and Fuller at first.  We'll protect him with Pavone behind the plate, and then Tommy in the six-hole at short. Sulzicki will DH, and we'll go with Aceto in right and Yavarone in left.

Hindsight being 20/20:  In our last game of the year, seven of those nine played, and just four guys were in the same spots in the lineup.  Two of those four were in different positions on the field (Martin and Fuller swapped corners).

I think you get the point.  Coaches don't really make out the lineup.  Players do.  Our players have worked hard in the fall and preseason to earn roles.  Some have earned the opportunity to start the opening game and with a week until the opener against Purdue, some are still battling for the privilege.   Some haven't earned that opportunity, and might not before the opener.  They will join guys like Pierre LePage, Doug Elliot, Tim Martin, Billy Ferriter, Kevin Vance, John Andreoli, Nick Ahmed, Ryan Fuller, Scott Oberg, and countless others who wound up being stars as Huskies, and eventual pros, but didn't start on opening day. 

I just don't know.  I'm not that smart.  Just ask the guys I named in the last paragraph!

I should just follow the lead of my father.  Whenever he was asked about his own team, he was consistent.  For forty-three preseasons, he'd say, "We stink."  When his team would almost always prove him wrong during the season, he'd wind up looking like John McGraw.

I don't know.  What I do know is that the players will make out the lineup for fifty-six games, injuries happen, some will disappoint, and some will pleasantly surprise.  I know that the Huskies who are mentally tough and work the hardest will increase their chances to compete, and our chances to win.  I know we'll be tested, and our "great chemistry" will be challenged.  I know what I don't know.  I don't know who will win for us today, but I know that is exactly who will play in March, April, May, and with some luck, June.  That might be all we can know before Friday.

More questions will be asked Friday, and every day after that.  The difference is I won't have to answer them.  Our players will.  And the best part is they won't have to utter a word.  Talk is cheap.  Their answers will be given with their arms, gloves, and bats....and that's how we'll be.  It's finally baseball season!  This I know.