Good to be Home Again

STORRS, Conn. – The Connecticut baseball team is happy to be home. Correction: Strike the word "happy" and replace it with "elated."

UConn (21-16, 9-3 Big East) begins a three-game conference series against Rutgers (21-15, 7-5) Friday at J.O. Christian Field with a doubleheader at noon. The teams will follow that up with a noon game Saturday at Dodd Stadium in Norwich. The forecast for rain on Sunday forced an adjustment to the original schedule, which called for single games Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The Huskies will take the schedule change without complaint. They haven't been on their home field since a 7-1 victory over Seton Hall on April 1. And the Huskies have played just six of their 37 games at home – posting a 5-1 record.

But the second half of the regular season will be a bit more forgiving. Twelve of the remaining 18 games before the Big East tournament will be played in Storrs, Norwich or New Britain.

"We haven't hit last very much this year," coach Jim Penders said Thursday. "We're thankful to be back and looking forward to a good weekend of baseball. It is a critical series. Whenever you are home, you've got to do your darndest to take the series. And if we should, we'd be in a good position for the last four weekends of the year."

Those final four weekends will be at Louisville (April 27-29), home against Cincinnati (May 5-6), at South Florida (May 11-13) and home against Notre Dame (May 17-19). Heading into Friday's games, USF leads the Big East with a 10-2 conference record, followed by UConn (9-3), and Louisville and St. John's (both 8-4).

"Three of these are at home, which is good for going down the stretch for Big East play," junior second baseman LJ Mazzilli said. "We've been traveling everywhere. And it's especially good for finals coming up. We get to study in our own rooms.

"Academically, it's very hard. We have a bunch of study halls on the road. But you've got to bring everything with you and manage your time between school and [batting practice] early the next day. After a game everyone is tired but you've got to find a way to get it all done. Our schedule this year, I think, has been the most hectic we've ever had."

Mazzilli has been UConn's most productive hitter. After hitting leadoff last season, he has moved into a more natural spot as the third batter in the Huskies' lineup. Mazzilli, a right-hander from Greenwich, is hitting .338 with 34 runs scored, nine home runs and 32 RBI. Center fielder Billy Ferriter now bats leadoff and has a .360 average with 32 runs scored.

"I'm trying to drive more runs in from that spot," Mazzilli said. "I'm trying to get hitters' counts too. That's a big thing because you don't see a lot to hit in that spot. Last year as the leadoff hitter, you try to get on base a little more and swing at a lot of first pitch strikes. Now I'm getting into counts where [the pitchers] start leaving stuff up. I'm trusting my hands and the home runs are coming."

Mazzilli's ninth homer of the season came April 15 and the three-run shot helped the Huskies to an 8-7 win in 11 innings. He is trying to provide leadership on this young team and more often than not the best way is on the field – and with the bat.

"He's a fundamentally sound hitter and he might have been our best hitter last year," Penders said. "The guy hit when he was 11, he's gonna hit when he's 15 and he's gonna hit when he's 28.

"In the batter's box, he's really special. I can't take too much credit. Take a look at his swing and he's a three hitter. He's gotten some big hits for us too. He has come through for us in big spots and that's been really exciting."

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