UConn Huskies making noise the diamond, too

UConn junior Matt Barnes has a big weekend ahead: Start for the Huskies in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday and picked in the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft on Saturday. (UConn athletics photo)

This has been a good year for UConn athletics. Usually, it’s the Husky women grabbing the national title headlines, but it has been other programs gaining acclaim this year. The football program played in the university’s first BCS bowl game, the men’s basketball squad went on one of the best tournament runs in recent memory to earn a national title, and believe it or not, the baseball team is relevant.

Fresh off their first CWS appearance in more than three decades, the Huskies came into the 2011 collegiate baseball season ranked in the top 25. A slow start soon dropped them from the rankings, but the Huskies performed well enough to earned an at-large bid and will vie for a return to Omaha. They’ll square off against Coastal Carolina in regional action.

Their success can be directly attributed to a pair of juniors. Leading the way is right-handed starter Matt Barnes. He is coming off a 2010 season where he was named to the All-New England and All-Big East First Teams. Following the Huskies exit from the CWS last year, he joined the USA Collegiate team, where he was an impressive 3-0 with a 1.45 ERA. He headed into 2011 as the clear ace of the staff.

Barnes has not disappointed. In 15 starts, he has 11 W, 105 K and a 1.12 ERA. During an on and off year for the Huskies, Barnes was nearly unbeatable. He matched a Big East record with eight league wins. Seems Barnes saved his best stuff for the stretch run. Potential suitors should have moved him up the draft boards as he threw 22 straight innings in May without relinquishing an earned run. Also, concerns of his command seem a bit unwarranted as he allowed just 28 free passes over 112.1 innings. His statistics did not go unnoticed; Barnes was named the Big East Pitcher of the Year.

Both ESPN.com and Baseball America have Barnes projected in the top 10 of mock drafts. He has been drawing some lofty comparisons. The Courant.com quoted Team USA coach Bill Kinneberg, “He looks like a young John Smoltz to me.” It will be some time before such praise can be earned, but Barnes appears to a lock for going early, perhaps even as high as number five overall to the Kansas City Royals.

Help on the offensive side has come primarily from another draft prospect, outfielder George Springer. Since joining UConn, from in-state prep school Avon Old Farms, Springer has done nothing but impress. In 2009, he became the first ever Husky to be named Big East Rookie of the Year. He also set the school record for runs scored in his debut year with 75.

In 2010, Springer continued to break school records. He amassed 18 homers, cracking his own mark from the prior season. He went on to showcase his talents in the Cape Cod League, where Baseball America tabbed him the best prospect.

Last week, his 2011 performance was well rewarded when Springer was the unanimous Big East Player of the Year. He was near or at the top of the league in RBIs, HRs and BA; 72, 12, and .372 respectively. Along with his season accolades, Springer hopes to hear his name called on June 6, the first round of the MLB draft. Most projections seem to have him going somewhere around 20th; MLB.com has the Oakland A’s landing him with the 18th pick.

It will be exciting for Husky fans to watch how far the junior duo will carry them. Coach Jim Penders has announced he plans on going with ace Barnes in the opening game of the tournament on Friday so they won’t have to wait long.
Come draft day, fans should have even more to anticipate. Who would have thought a pair of Huskies would be competing for draft position with the likes of Taylor Jungmann and Anthony Rendon from powerhouse baseball schools like Texas and Rice? I had to look it up, but the last Husky to go in the first round was Charles Nagy. Guess what? Cleveland has the 10th pick this year … maybe they’ll land another right-hander from Storrs.


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