April 29, 2014
By Marya Fratoni
STORRS, Conn. -- In an up-and-down season for the UConn baseball team, the Huskies have shown their strength on the mound with a handful of student-athletes who have managed to contribute greatly to the team’s success. Specifically, the bullpen pitchers have been doing a sterling job for the squad to help it advance on the road to the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
Last year, the UConn lost five members of the bullpen to graduation and each of those players played a key role in the team’s success in the postseason run to the Big East Championship crown. Replacing it was going to be a difficult task, but things are going better than expected.
Overall, UConn relief arms have combined to post a 2.12 ERA in 144.2 innings over 99 overall appearances. Pitching coach Joshua MacDonald said his bullpen arms have exceeded his expectations this season. “The best part of this year's pen is that they are an incredibly competitive and prideful group. Each guy wants to go out there and prove why they should get the ball again.”
Coach MacDonald mainly attributes this success to the starting pitchers. He explains that it is a ‘trickle-down effect.’ He explained that when the starters pitch well and deep into games, it allows the bullpen pitchers to be fresh and not overused when they are needed to come in to clinch the win for the team. “When you have pitching depth and quality in the rotation a coach is able to put quality members of the staff to get outs in the late innings when the pressure is highest,” added MacDonald.
“This year, because of our depth and the quality outings of our starters, we haven't really needed to deal with the fatigue issue. But the depth has made it hard to get quality arms consistent work at times throughout the season,” he said. Sometimes the pitchers could not play in games for weeks at a time; but when they go in, they are expected to take advantage of that opportunity and show their mettle. This is not only a massive physical test, but also a big mental test as well.
Mental readiness is what freshman Patrick Ruotolo (Peabody, Mass.) believes has been the key to his success. With an era of 1.53 in 35.1 innings—the most innings among any relief pitcher —Ruotolo has emerged as one of the most reliable arms in the pen. The freshman is having an incredibly solid first season as he has also recorded 41 strikeouts against 17 walks, notching two saves and holding opponents to a .211 batting average against. “I've heard from past seasons that the bullpen has always been reliable to the team. I think this year there are a lot of good arms on our staff and a lot of young pitchers,” said Ruotolo.
“I think the most important thing for anyone to be successful is confidence. Trust what you do, visualize the pitch and then execute the pitch. The second any doubt creeps into your mind you've already lost the battle against the hitter,” said redshirt-sophomore Max Slade, another valuable asset to the bullpen. With a 1.93 era in 18.2 innings and a .243 batting average against, Slade has become another go-to pitcher for the Huskies. This comes a year after the Cheshire, Conn. native posted a 3.80 ERA, mostly working in mop-up duty that included a midweek spot start.
Additionally, redshirt-sophomore Devin Over has slipped onto the bullpen arms list with a 2.20 ERA. His off-season work has proved to benefit him greatly, as Over made the transition from a utility field player to a full-time pitcher. “This offseason I worked really hard in the weight room trying to gain as much power and strength as possible,” the Windsor, Conn. native said. “As a reliever, you usually work often for small quick bursts, so it's important that you can be explosive, and also recover quickly.”
Finally, redshirt-junior David Mahoney (Colchester, Conn.), the lone returning arm who logged major innings for the Huskies out of the pen a year ago, has lived up to his billing. In a team-high 19 appearances, Mahoney has recorded a 2.91 ERA with 17 strikeouts against eight walks. The 6’4 lefty has adjusted his game from a situational reliever earlier in his career to becoming the Connecticut closer, and has converted five save opportunities this year. But, Mahoney is always looking to improve regardless. “The one thing I would like to improve on is getting ahead on batters,” he said. “Sometimes I get behind in the count by throwing to many balls, which forces me to throw a pitch I might otherwise not throw.”
When asked about the groups potential going forward, Coach MacDonald is most concerned about helping his current group of pitchers reach their full potential. However, he is still enthusiastic about the seasons to come. “The one thing I am excited about is that I may have one of the best pitching coach jobs in the country,” he said.
“The pitchers that were here before I got here and the ones that we have brought in these past couple of years have meshed into one of the hardest working groups I have been around.”