UConn baseball coach Jim Penders hoping Huskies are able to qualify for Big East tournament

Photo of David Borges

In its first season back in the Big East, the UConn baseball team sits in third place in the league standings, a seemingly comfortable position in an eight-team league where only the top four teams make the conference championship tournament.

But the Huskies could be at risk of not qualifying for the Big East tournament, which will be played May 27-30 at Prasco Park in Mason, Ohio.

With the understanding that teams could lose games off their schedules due to COVID-19 cancellations, the Big East has mandated that teams must play at least 14 conference games in order to qualify for the league tourney. To this date, UConn (4-2) has played six games, with 12 more league games left on its schedule. That adds up to 18, of course, but another COVID pause — or, for that matter, a bunch of rainouts — could put the Huskies in peril.

Hearst Connecticut Sports · UConn Report: UConn baseball coach Jim Penders joins the show

“We want to make sure we qualify for that darn Big East tournament,” coach Jim Penders said on a Hearst Connecticut Media podcast. “We want to win the league, too. We’ve got a chance to win the regular season. That has to be the top priority: championships.”

It’s been a “confluence of events,” per Penders, that has limited the Huskies to just six league games so far. UConn was in the middle of a four-game home series with Georgetown in early April when a fourth Husky player tested positive for COVID-19. The school’s medical staff decided to cancel the rest of the series and send the Hoyas home.

“It was the right move,” said Penders. “I’d never question the doctors.”

Indeed, six more UConn players tested positive in the ensuing days, and the Huskies had to cancel a four-game series at Creighton slated for April 16-18.

Last Wednesday, UConn had a player test positive, and the team let its upcoming opponent, Butler, know about it. Butler elected to cancel its slated trip for a four-game set at Elliot Ballpark, even after UConn let the program know the following day that it was a false positive.

Now, according to Penders, UConn athletic director David Benedict is working hard with the league to get some sort of resolution and give the Huskies some sort of credit for the four games that weren’t played.

“We were here, we were ready to go and we were healthy, and they didn’t show,” Penders noted. “So, we’re hopeful something may come of that. Even if they’re not forfeits, could we just get the credit.”

The league is looking into trying to reschedule at least a couple of those Butler games, though the schedule doesn’t allow for much wiggle room, especially with mid-week games scheduled for the Huskies the rest of the month.

In truth, there is a good chance UConn will be able to play in the Big East tournament, even if it doesn’t get to 14 league games. In men’s basketball, the league decided before the season that all teams must play at least 10 conference games. But as teams like Xavier, DePaul and even, at one point, UConn looked like they might struggle to get to 10 Big East games, the conference office decided that it would re-evaluate the decision if a team fell short and let them play anyway.

Similarly, in mid-season, the NCAA switched its mandate that women’s teams must have at least a .500 record to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Changes can be, and usually are, made on the fly in these COVID times.

Of course, this is all moot if UConn’s league winning percentage isn’t one of the top four in the league. Currently, Butler (4-7) is in fifth place with a .364 winning percentage, followed by St. John’s (5-10) at .333. The Red Storm could make up some ground on third-place UConn in a four-game series this weekend in Queens, N.Y.

Bottom line: UConn (20-14 overall) simply has to keep winning games, especially if it hopes to be in the mix for a potential at-large invite to the NCAA tournament.

The Huskies started the season 4-10, with six of those losses in one-run games on the road to perennial powers like Texas Tech, Virginia, Coastal Carolina and Southern Mississippi.

“(UConn’s record is) very close to being more like 22-12, 23-11, but it is what it is,” Penders reasoned. “You are what your record says you are. Bill Parcells said that, and it’s true.”

UConn has rebounded since then, including a 12-1 record at its sparkling new, on-campus ballpark. But the Huskies are still very much an NCAA tournament “bubble” team that may have to win its conference tournament.

“We’ve got to get in some kind of rhythm,” Penders noted. “We’ll learn a lot about our team. We’re still learning an awful lot, but I do like the group.”

Prior to the season, Penders was unusually candid about how good this team might be, agreeing that it could be the program’s first College World Series team since 1979. Does he still feel that way?

“Absolutely. We need some breaks, but it’s a good enough team to get deep into the postseason and get to Omaha. Anything’s possible. I like our chances.”

AROUND THE BASES

Penders would love Elliot Ballpark, which opened this season, to eventually host the Big East tournament. The facility boasts field turf, lights and a capacity, Penders believes, of as much as 10,000 if the outfield berm and other areas are utilized properly.

“Eventually, I think they’ll understand the following we have, the ability we have to host here and, hopefully, the league coaches would be excited about that,” Penders said.

It hasn’t helped, of course, that only one Big East team (Georgetown) has been able to visit Elliot so far. A second (Seton Hall) is slated to play there May 20-22. But, as we’ve learned in these COVID-19 times, nothing is certain this season.

If unable to listen to podcast on this article, please find it here

david.borges@hearstmediact.com