July 17, 2014
By Steve Lewis, UConn Athletic Communications
STORRS, Conn. - The University of Connecticut has three players representing the school in Major League Baseball as the All-Star break concludes and the second half of the season begins for the 30 big league teams.
Houston Astros' right fielder George Springer ('11), Chicago Cubs' third baseman Mike Olt ('10), and Arizona Diamondbacks' shortstop Nick Ahmed ('11) are all looking to add onto their first half stats and continue proving the success of UConn baseball.
Most notably, it is Springer who has grabbed much of the spotlight in the MLB this season for his loud bat and aggressive defense. After being called up on April 17, the Astros counted on their No. 3 prospect to be the new "face of the franchise" and pump life into a suffering organization.
All of last year, the Astros won 51 games. At the halfway point this season, they have won 40 with Springer patrolling the outfield. That fact is probably not coincidental. Springer's former and UConn's current head coach, Jim Penders, believes George to have unlimited potential.
"The sky is the limit for him, I really do believe he has the potential to be the face of the Astros organization and one of the guys in Major League Baseball that kids look up to," said the 11-year Husky coach. "I can see him doing all kinds of great things in Major League Baseball."
Springer has hit 19 home runs and knocked in 50 RBI, both second among American League rookies, in 76 games. The 2011 Big East Player of the Year wasted little time in making his presence felt, being named Rookie of the Month in May for his 10 home run, 25 RBI and 22 run performance in 26 games. In a seven game span, ending on May 29, Springer hit seven home runs, becoming the first rookie since Rudy York in 1937 to have seven round-trippers in as many games.
Springer's spectacular on-field performance landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated on June 30 with the title, "Your 2017 World Series Champs". The Astros may be the team of the future, but George's impact is being felt in the present.
"He's driving in runs like he did when he was here and to do it at the highest level on the planet is quite impressive," said Penders about his former star. Springer set UConn records in home runs (46) and runs scored (220) while playing in Storrs.
Penders admits to being confused as to why Houston didn't bring up Springer last year after a wildly successful season in the minors (37 homers and 108 RBI). Now that the 24-year-old has his chance in the majors, his talent and personality have cemented his place in the MLB.
"He's got that magnetism that you don't teach," said Penders about the 11th overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft. "I don't think there's anybody who watches him and doesn't enjoy it."
Lightning Bolts From Mike Olt
Four years in the Rangers' and Cubs'minor league systems has finally found Mike Olt consistently playing in the big leagues. So far in 2014, the rookie third baseman has appeared in 70 games, recording 12 home runs (most among NL rookies) and 29 RBI (second among NL rookies) in 180 at-bats.
The former Husky, who had a career batting average of .312 at UConn and set the program single-season record with 23 home runs in 2010, is starting to come into his own and is using his power to prove his playing ability.
"His power is off the charts. I think you can count on maybe a couple hands of the guys who have the kind of power he possesses," said Penders. "He's got game-altering power."
As of late, Olt has been more of a bench player, struggling to gain consistency in his game. Though he is not a regular starter for the Cubs, he has made an impression on Theo Epstein, President of Baseball Operations.
"He's not backing down," Epstein told the Chicago Sun-Times about a slumping Olt back on June 20. "He's grinding his way through it. He's shown the things that make him, potentially, a really good player with the insane raw power and his ability to, when he gets his pitch, hit it out of the ballpark. We think this is the right place for him."
One of Olt's most notable performances in the first half of the season came locally against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. The third baseman went 2-for-5, smacking a home run over the Green Monster and driving in two as the Cubs beat the Sox, 16-9, on July 2. He also contributed two runs in the winning effort.
His power may be what gets the attention, but Penders wants his defense to be recognized as well. "He also plays a great third base, he does not get enough credit for how good he is at third base," said the Husky coach.
Olt's Cubs will face Ahmed's Diamondbacks when play resumes for the two teams on Friday. In an exchange of texts, Penders asked Ahmed if he would be willing to bunt down the line toward his former teammate when they play against each other. Ahmed replied saying, "No way, nobody's better at the bare-handed play than Mike is."
Ahmed Makes It Three
Nick Ahmed recently joined Springer and Olt in the majors, appearing in seven games before the All-Star break. In 26 major league at-bats, Ahmed has six hits and an RBI, and has struck out only twice.
The former Husky shortstop was drafted in 2011 by the Atlanta Braves, playing in their minor league system for two years before being traded to Arizona in a deal for perennial All-Star Justin Upton. After hitting .324 in the first part of the 2014 season for the Triple-A Reno Aces, he was called up by the Diamondbacks on June 29 and seems to be preparing for a long stay in the MLB.
"I'm just so happy for him, it's well-deserved. Nobody works harder than Nick Ahmed. There might be some that work the same, but nobody works harder than him," said Penders.
The UConn coach is also impressed with Ahmed's approach at the plate so far, praising him for his focus on putting the ball in play.
"He has developed into a really good contact hitter," said Penders. "I know his average probably isn't where he wants it, but he's having quality at-bats."
Ahmed is known to flash some leather as well, being named the winner of the 2013 Rawlings Minor League Gold Glove award at the shortstop position. "His biggest tool is his defense. He's a special defender at shortstop. I'm excited to tune in," said Ahmed's college skipper.
"I know his average probably isn't where he wants it, but he's having quality at-bats," said Penders. "They are three guys who take their work and preparation very seriously. It's just fun to see that rewarded sometimes."
With three Huskies now in the Majors, UConn matches a school record for most alumni playing in the MLB at one time. UConn has not had three professional players since 2003, when Jason Grabowski, Charles Nagy, and Pete Walker played at the same time.
The path that Springer, Olt, and Ahmed are laying for future Huskies in the MLB is one that will only increase the credibility of an already strong UConn baseball program. According to Penders, recruits will now be able to see UConn products play at the highest level.
"If they can blaze a trail in Major League Baseball, we have a better chance of attracting a local player to say, `Hey, here's a route taken by three guys who had the chance of going almost anywhere in the country, but they chose to stay home. Chose to play in New England and look at them now, look at how far they've gotten."
To follow all of the former Huskies in professional baseball, click HERE.