Steve Catalina and the Husky bullpen were terrific on Thursday.
May 24, 2013
Editor's Note: Chris Jones is the radio voice of UConn baseball on WHUS-91.7 FM. He wrote this story after calling the game on Wednesday.
By Chris Jones
For the University of Connecticut baseball team, Thursday was supposed to be the final day of their season. Many believed that the Huskies would come into the final BIG EAST tournament and be one of the first teams eliminated.
What has transpired since the start of the tournament has been unexpected to many, but not to the Huskies. A team that is playing with nothing to lose, chip on their shoulder attitude that has thrown the BIG EAST Tournament into total disarray.
An extra inning win over the top seeded Louisville Cardinals on Wednesday evening was a start, but the Huskies knew that people expected that one game to be their shining moment.
Thursday was another chance to prove everyone wrong. A USF squad that has owned the Huskies by winning eight of the past nine meetings awaited the UConn with dreams of an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament. The Huskies knew that the pressure would be on the hometown Bulls.
The Bulls applied that pressure in the early part of the ballgame, scoring the first seven runs of the ballgame with runs in the first two innings, before exploding for four in the fourth and adding one in the fifth. The Huskies were coming up down 7-0 in the bottom of the fifth with USF looking as if they would cruise into the BIG EAST semifinals, but the UConn dugout remained positive, even with the large deficit.
"There was no panic from our dugout," said UConn head coach Jim Penders. "We were just waiting for something positive to happen on the field."
The comeback began in the fifth inning when USF pitcher Nick Gonzalez walked two batters and hit Tom Verdi with a 1-2 pitch to load the bases with two outs. From there the Huskies would capitalize with Billy Ferriter, LJ Mazzilli and Vinny Siena all driving in and scoring runs to cut the USF lead all the way from seven down to one.
Just like that the Huskies were right back in the ballgame and the pressure was back in the Bulls dugout. The Huskies had a spring in their step with Mazzilli and Verdi doing their normal handshake after the mid-inning throws down to second base with LJ added some dance moves to exemplify how much fun the team was having out on the field.
The offense has to be credited with getting the Huskies back into the game, but it was the bullpen that may have ultimately won the game for the Huskies. Especially the guys that threw after the Huskies were able to cut the USF lead to one. Dan Feehan and David Mahoney combined to pitch 3.2 innings of relief and keep USF at seven runs.
For Feehan, Bright House Field has not been the kindest venue for the right hander but on Thursday he picked up his teammate Stephen Catalina and bailed him out of a sixth inning jam.
"I haven't had too much success here but tonight I just wanted to pick up Steve," said Feehan. "Mahoney then was able to do the same thing for me."
It was the "Magic Man" who came in for Feehan in the seventh inning and got the Huskies out of another jam. Mahoney's nickname comes because of all sticky situations that the lefthander has worked out of out of the bullpen with runners this year.
"I seem to thrive in those pressure situations, said Mahoney. "Every pitch is a big pitch and I just want to go out there and execute."
Mahoney has done that in the first two games pitching 2.1 innings Wednesday and 2.2 innings on Thursday, picking up victories in both contests.
As the bullpen held the USF offense down, the UConn offense continued to try and scratch across the tying run. A couple base running errors cost the Huskies but the team didn't seem to get too discouraged as they kept coming against the USF bullpen.
Finally, in the eighth inning with runners at the corners and one out, the most selfless players of the tournament, Jon Testani, drove a ball to the left centerfield warning track that brought in the tying run. 7-7 game and the Huskies had come all the way back to tie the game.
But would the Huskies be able to pull off what was unthinkable back in top of the fifth inning?
In the bottom of the ninth the Huskies would get it done - but it wasn't a usual suspect. It was senior Stanley Paul, who almost single-handily scored the winning run for the Huskies. Stanley led off the inning with a double into right center field that Anthony Diaz was unable to hold on to as he slid on the grass.
"I was looking fastball and he got it in on me, "said Paul. "Once I got on base I knew we were going to win the game."
After the double, Tom Verdi recorded the first out with a popped up bunt that couldn't advance Paul. But as the Huskies have done, Stanley picked up his teammate. With Ferriter at the plate, Jordan Strittmatter threw a ball in the dirt that got under the gear of Chris Norton, that split second to recover and grab the ball allowed Paul to slide in safely at third base.
"I was waiting for the ball to hit the dirt and once it did I took off," said Paul.
After two intentional walks to the other seniors in the lineup, Siena stepped to the plate. With a 0-2 count, Strittmatter threw a pitch that bounced past Norton and allowed Paul to sprint home with the winning run.
An improbable ending to an improbable comeback as the Huskies mobbed Paul, the Bulls walked off the field stunned at what had just happened. The Huskies are now the team going to the BIG EAST semifinals but know that the job isn't done yet.
"The only way we can get to the NCAA Tournament is to win this thing," said Penders. "We are here to win a championship and I'm so proud of these guys because they seem to be getting better each game. I can't wait to see what's next."