Baseball: UConn faces Memphis in a conference showdown
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The UConn baseball team rides its second-worst losing streak of the season - which currently stands at four games - into Tennessee this weekend for a three-game set against conference rival Memphis, its first regular season action against the Tigers since 2005.
The Huskies (21-23, 5-9 The American) enter the weekend ranked No. 7 out of nine teams in the American Athletic Conference, just one spot ahead of the No. 8 Tigers (24-22, 5-10 The American), who like UConn have just five conference wins this season.
The two teams are also neck-and-neck in a handful of team statistics. UConn's team batting average is .269, just nine points better than Memphis' .260. The Huskies hold a .966 fielding average, only three points lower than the Tigers' .969.
"It's kind of like looking in the mirror when you look at their stats," head coach Jim Penders said. "It's very similar. They pitch [the ball] better than they hit it, it looks like they're a solid defensive team. I think there are a ton of similarities."
UConn, which has 11 games remaining on its regular season schedule, was able to get in an extra practice on Wednesday after its game against Holy Cross was cancelled, giving the Huskies a few more hours of preparation and recuperation after playing six games in eight days.
Penders said the practice was a productive reprieve for his group, which has not won a game since April 23.
"The practice yesterday was very helpful," he said. "Whenever you're struggling, it's good to just get a solid work day in, and that's what we did yesterday. I'd expect the morale to be good going into Memphis."
Although their record may not suggest it, Penders said the Tigers - who boast road wins over nationally ranked teams including Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Louisville - are one of the strongest teams UConn will face down the stretch.
Memphis is led on the mound by 6-foot-4 junior left hander Caleb Wallingford, who leads the conference with an unheard of 1.02 earned run average through just over 70 innings pitched, as well as a .190 opponent batting average.
Wallingford will get the ball against UConn tonight, making his 11th start of the season.
"They're not going to be in awe of the Connecticut Huskies, but we can't go down there in awe of them either," Penders said of Memphis. "We have to go down there and realize that we're going to be fighting to qualify for the conference tournament, and they are too. That's our lone path to a championship right now."
This weekend marks the first time that UConn and Memphis meet as members of the same conference, with the Tigers being one of the three Conference USA programs that jumped to The American last year.
Penders said Memphis, a southern school located in a traditional baseball hotbed, brings a lot to the conference.
"They're an outstanding athletic program in a really nice city, with high visibility and a great following," he said. "They're another southern school from a baseball perspective. That in and of itself is probably indicative of the fact that baseball's really important to them, as a premier sport in their athletic department. They're very invested in it. They've got a nice stadium. They've got all the bells and whistles to go along with a really good program."
Penders said that while playing on the road brings its own set of challenges, it's something that the team is used to, having played 31 of its 44 regular season games outside of Connecticut.
"We're used to being on the road. It's not something new," Penders said. "The guys are used to the routine. They've played eight games at J.O. Christian Field all year, so it's another road trip where we've got to find a way to win a series on the road, and we haven't done that since we went to Cincinnati. We've got to find a way to get that done this weekend."
Senior Anthony Marzi, redshirt junior Jordan Tabakman and freshman Anthony Kay comprise the Huskies' weekend rotation. First pitch for tonight's game is set for 7:30 p.m. Coverage can be heard on 91.7-WHUS.
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