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Fall Ball Report - Connecticut looks to rebound from '17 Regional snub

After going 14-10 in the American Athletic and 2-2 in the conference tournament the Huskies gathered to watch the 2017 College World Series selection show on a deserted UConn campus late last May. With an RPI of 38 and the AAC rated as the 4th best conference in America, Jim Penders liked his chances of hearing UConn's name called by the committee.

Unfortunately, it didn't happen. In the end, the selection committee looked the other way, denying the Huskies their 5th post season berth since 2010.

From that point forward, Penders coined the mantra "One more thing, One more time" to help focus and drive his 2018 squad. "We felt like we got every last drop out of that '17 ball club, but it just wasn't enough. We're determined to do one more drill, one more rep, whatever it takes" to get back to a Regional in 2018.

I visited Storrs, CT to check out the Huskies and came away impressed with their early 2018 roster.

It starts on the mound. The Huskies led the American with a 3.26 ERA last year and have two weekend starters locked down in two-time Team USA lefty Tim Cate and Freshman All-American and fellow lefty Mason Feole, who'll slide up from the Sunday slot. Both are shut down for the Fall due to heavy workloads over the last 7 months, 87.2 IP for Cate, 106 for Feole.

Cate was named the #8 overall prospect on Team USA by Baseball America and #3 by D1Baseball after he flashed his 12-6 curveball and 90-93 mph heater, whiffing 20 hitters in just 12 innings. The athletic if undersized Cate has a low-effort delivery with fast arm action, producing a major league spin rate on his pro-ready curve ball and a fastball that jumps on hitters.

As a freshman, Feole made 14 starts, went 7-4 and posted a 3.38 ERA and spent his summer on The Cape with the Wareham Gatemen, tossing 23.1 innings and striking out 24. Feole sports a high leg kick and over the top arm action, producing some deception with a low 90's fastball. More of a pitch-to- contact guy, Feole already shows an advanced repertoire.

Gone is the fiery and physical Wills Montgomerie, who ate up 89.2 IP in going 6-3, with a 40/116 BB/K ratio before being selected in the 6th round by the Dodgers.

So who will fill the Sunday slot? Penders and pitching coach Josh MacDonald have options, no more intriguing that towering lefty Chase Gardner, an All-State performer last year at College of Marin JC in California. Gardner is a strapping 6'5", 220lb downhill thrower with an attacking mentality. He touched 92 during his one inning of work today and showed a biting curveball with good tilt.

Others in the mix for starting roles are junior lefty PJ Poulin, who made 5 starts in '17, logging 35.1 innings while posting a 3.28 ERA and a 14/29 BB/K ratio and righty Jeff Kersten, a 6'4", 195lb transfer from Sierra College in California.

The Huskies will need a power arm to replace '17 closer John Russell, who was superb in notching 14 saves while blowing away 66 batters over just 38 innings. Russell was a 16th round draft pick by the Giants.

An intriguing place to start is 6'5", 237lb junior Ronnie Rossomando who made 8 starts last year but may be better suited for the bullpen. He possesses a big arm, striking out 41 and posting a .243 BAA over 42.2 IP, but is challenged with finding a consistent release point. If his delivery tightens and he finds more command, Rossomando could be a real weapon in late inning situations.

Expected back from TJ surgery and a 2017 medical redshirt year is RHP Randy Polonia. He earned 6 saves in 2016 as a freshman, with 38 strikeouts in just 25 innings while flashing advanced breaking stuff. A full return to form would give Penders another premium arm for high leverage, late game situations.

Several key position players return, providing a talented and productive nucleus to lead the way.

It starts behind the plate with junior catcher Zack Susi, an athletic left-handed hitter with good bat control and significant power potential. Following a .286 spring, Susi showed flashes on The Cape with the Bourne Braves, hitting .267 with three homers in the regular season. He was then named the 37th best prospect in the CCBL by D1 Baseball. Defensively, Susi moves well behind the plate and possesses a plus arm, becoming a true centerpiece for the Huskies D.

Shortstop is in the capable hands of sophomore Anthony Prato, who earned Freshman All-American honors after hitting .304, scoring 50 runs and stealing 15 bags. After competing with a nagging hip ailment for much of '17, look for Prato to be a top table setter in the American come 2018.

Although out for Fall Ball following elbow surgery, 5'11', 230lb outfielder John Toppa is set to return in the spring. Toppa hit .267 last spring while stealing 10 bases, showing surprising athleticism given his build. Over the summer he flourished on The Cape, batting .281 over 139 at bats for the Wareham Gateman.

OF Isaac Feldstein, a 6'2", 215lb thumper from California, pounded 7 homers last year. He turns good wrist action into impressive bat speed. Feldstein had knee surgery recently and is out for the fall but expected back at full strength come spring.

Perhaps the difference between a good and great '18 Husky season is the maturation and further development of now sophomores 1B/OF Chris Winkel and INF Conor Moriarty.

Winkel in particular is a breakout candidate, possessing a wiry strong and athletic 6'4", 200lb body. While he hit only .225 last year with a 12/52 BB/K ratio in 160 AB's, his speed already plays, evidenced in stealing 11/14 bases and legging out 4 triples in '17. If Winkel can improve his plate discipline and boost his on-base percentage, he could to be a legitimate offensive threat in the AAC.

Moriarty has good hands and plenty of arm to play either 2B or 3rd. He's looking to improve his .228/.277/.336 slash numbers from last year.

A key loss for the Huskies is 3B Willy Yahn, who was the Husky heartbeat on and off the field last year and a 25th round draft pick by Baltimore. Yahn was a tough out, a .319 hitter and importantly offered leadership in the clubhouse and on the road. Penders is looking for someone to emerge as a clubhouse presence and pull the younger players through the rugged AAC in 2018.

2018 Outlook: The Huskies look to be balanced and formidable. The pitching staff will again be one of the AAC's best. The lineup is flush with speed and physical athleticism. If a few younger players emerge and a Sunday starter steps right in, there's no reason the Huskies can't reach a Super for the first time since 2011.

Post script - On September 26, 2017, Perfect Game released their top-150 MLB prospects for the 2018 draft. Huskies Tim Cate (26) and Zac Susi (118) are on the list.

2018 Husky Schedule

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©2017 by Stuart Murray