Opening Weekend Featured Series: Connecticut vs. Louisville
Where: Lakeland, FL (Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium)
Friday, 6pm: RHP Jeff Kersten vs. LHP Reid Detmers
Saturday, 3pm: RHP Colby Dunlop vs. LHP Nick Bennett
Sunday, 1pm: TBD vs. RHP Bryan Hoeing
Connecticut: Jim Penders enters his 16th year in Storrs, CT (525-367-5; 5 Regionals, 1 Super) with a talented & experienced roster headlined by yet another elite left-hander in Golden Spikes Watch Lister & All-American Mason Feole (9-2, 2.50 ERA, .220 OBA, 120K/49BB in 100.2 innings). Unfortunately, Feole is a late scratch in this series as he continues to build strength following a strained triceps. .
Getting the ball Friday is senior Californian Jeff Kersten (11 starts, 4.66 ERA, .306 OBA), a lean 6-4 righty with a three pitch mix who's looking to put it all together. Saturday will be sophomore righty Colby Dunlap (4.76 ERA over 34 innings, 19K/18BB, .336 OBA) who reportedly took a big jump this fall.
Sunday's starter is anyone's guess because towering lefty Chase Gardner (6-7, 245lb; 15 starts, 3.76 ERA over 67 innings; .238 OBA) is moving to the bullpen, slotted for high-leverage situations whenever they may occur.
Closing the deal will be Jacob Wallace (43.1innings, 63K/21BB, 3.95ERA, .226 OBA; Cape League All-Star/Bourne), who possesses electric, swing & miss stuff. He has big shoes to fill however, as 2018 closer P.J. Poulin (16 saves, 3.26 ERA) has moved on to pro ball.
While the Huskies lose three key bats (C Zac Susi/.335; CF Troy Stefanski/.326, 5 HR; RF Isaac Feldstein/.276, 14 HR) from 2018, they do return the straw that stirs the offense in junior SS Anthony Prato (.324 batting average; 18-24 stolen bases), a veteran of 114 career starts and one of the toughest outs in the American Conference (8.1% K rate). Another weapon is converted 2B and now CF Michael Woodworth (.302/.364/.395), a speed merchant who stole 13 bases without getting caught. Both Prato & Woodworth are also plus defenders up the middle.
An X-factor for the Huskies is senior LF John Toppa, a 210-pound footballer trapped in a baseball uniform with surprising speed (11-17 stolen bases) and a proven hit tool (.283 career average over 583 at-bats). Toppa stayed home this summer to work on his swing, trying to lift & drive the ball with more frequency in hopes of increasing his power numbers (2 career home runs, .354 slugging percentage).
Two other notable bats are fiery sophomore Christian Fedko (converting to 2B) and junior 1B Chris Winkel. Fedco was the AAC "Newcomer of the Year" in 2018 who saved his only homer for the Conway, SC Regional, knocking out host Coastal Carolina. Winkel, a 6-5, 210-pounder athlete who can run showed a nice jump in productivity from his freshman year.
The starting catcher is Winkel's brother, freshman Patrick Winkel, one of the top UConn recruits in recent memory. He has plus catch & throw skills while possessing a highly projectable bat.
Louisville: Dan McDonnell (12 years, 554-222; 11 Regionals, 7 Supers) offenses are typically built around getting on-base, and once there, creating havoc with the running game.
While they need to replace two key cogs from a year ago (CF Josh Stowers, .336/.477/.559, 36 SB; 2B Devin Mann .303/.446/.504, 15-16 SB) everyone else returns, including All-American 1B Logan Wyatt (22 doubles, .490 OBA), projectable SS Tyler Fitzgerald (17 doubles, 23-24 SB) and OF Jake Snider (.423 OBA, 24-28 SB).
Complimentary pieces include Danny Oriente (50 starts, .403 OBA) and Drew Campbell (45 starts, .374 OBA) while toolsy junior 3B Justin Lavey (.248 BA, 13 doubles) looks to put it all together after an up-and-down 2018.
Wyatt carried his productivity to the Cape were he hit .305 and walked (29) more than he struck out (24),. Add 9 hit-by-pitches and his OBA was an impressive .458. Importantly he showed more power with wood in his hands, indicating potential for double-digit homers this season.
Fitzgerald led the Cape in doubles (14) while hitting .298 over 171 at-bats. He clearly has juice in his bat and a power surge wouldn't be a surprise. In this year of elite college shortstops, few have a higher ceiling than Fitzgerald.
The pitching staff loses workhorse starter Adam Wolf (16 starts, 102.2 IP, 109K/29BB, 2.63 ERA) but returns a ton of high end talent, including four pitchers who threw at least 45.2 innings while posting ERA's under 3.00.
Sophomore lefty Reid Detmers (8 starts, 4.85 ERA over 55.2 innings 69K/34BB) gets the call on Friday. He's a powerful 6-2, 210-pounder with high-potential stuff. While his command ticked up in the Cape (35K/8BB in 32.1 innings), he did get touched up a bit (1.37 WHIP, 4.55 ERA in 6 starts). Word is his heater took a jump this Fall.
Saturday belongs to junior lefty Nick Bennett (11 starts, 2.84 ERA over 73 innings), a consensus 2017 Freshman All-American who silenced bats last year (.203 OBA). More importantly, few barreled-up Bennett, as he allowed only 11 extra-base hits on the year.
Sunday McDonnell will hand the ball to 6-6, 230-pound righty Bryan Hoeing (7-2, 5 starts, 2.88 ERA, 51K/25BB in 68.2 innings) who chose to return to campus after being selected in the 36th round of the 2018 MLB draft.
Gone are the 10 saves from Sam Bordner (16th round pick), ending a long line of big-time Cardinals closers (Nick Burdi, brother Zach & Lincoln Henzman). Quality candidates to fill that role include Shay Smiddy (2.96 ERA, 45.2 innings), Bobby Miller (2.97 ERA, 66.2 innings and hard throwing Michael McAvene (5.23 ERA, 10.1 innings).
What to Look For:
1) Cardinals base runners vs. freshman catcher Patrick Winkel. McDonnell loves to make things happen on the bases (125 stolen bases in 2018, #5 nationally) and will no doubt test the highly touted catch & throw prospect who ultimately chose UConn over Vanderbilt.
2) Defense. Historically Louisville has played good defense under McDonnell. However, after posting the nations 15th best fielding percentage in 2016, the Cardinals slipped to 50th in 2017 and down to 181st last year. Improvement will be an important factor for Louisville to return to Omaha.
The Huskies look rock-solid up the middle with C Winkel, SS Prato, 2B Fedko & CF Woodworth.
3) John Toppa as a breakout candidate. Should the powerfully built senior transition from a hitter to a slugger the Huskies offense could kick into overdrive.
4) Louisville's next closer. There's no shortage of talent, just a question of "who's the Man"? We could get a look in this opening series