TOLLAND — A year ago at this time, former Amity High star Vin Siena was doing everything he could to emulate UConn’s dynamic second baseman LJ Mazzilli. Now he is taking Mazilli’s spot in the infield and might also take his coveted No. 3 spot in the batting order.
“I have been working really hard and I am really excited,” Siena said. “I played second base in high school and in the summer, I switched around the infield, but probably the biggest difference is making turns at second, knowing where I have to be when the ball is hit to the outfield. But I picked it up pretty quickly because I saw a lot of it from last year because I saw LJ do it. He’s a great role model and he helped me a lot last year.”
Siena finished second to Mazzilli on the 2013 UConn team with a .302 average, 77 hits and 35 RBIs. He admitted to having more ups and downs at the plate than he was accustomed to. He is hoping to take the lessons from his freshman season and put them to use.
“I think it was good that I went through that,” Siena said. “I now know how to control my emotions, keep myself mentally positive, because in baseball you have to be confident to be successful at the plate and in the field. I think I learned that from the failure of later in the season and I definitely think I won’t be having that again.”
UConn coach Jim Penders said he is considering batting Siena either second or third. If Siena doesn’t hit second, Penders said North Haven’s Eric Yavarone is one of the options to hit there.
Yavarone hit .275 as a sophomore and Penders said “he is swinging the bat as well as I have ever seen him.”
Yavarone is a notoriously quick starter and strong finisher, but he wants to be a more consistent hitter during the entire season and he did some fine tuning with his swing in order to accomplish that goal.
“I made some adjustments and so far I feel like I have been swinging it pretty good in the preseason and I am looking to carry it over to the regular season,” Yavarone said. “I think last year at times I would get a little jumpy. (His swing) was too short, too choppy, so I tried to simplify things a little bit more.”
UConn will certainly miss Mazzilli and Billy Ferriter, who combined for 31 doubles and 56 stolen bases last season, but the Huskies had several months to prepare to fill those holes.
The loss of pitching ace Carson Cross is tougher to deal with. He was injured playing intramural flag football atUConn and will miss the season. Cross led the Huskies with nine wins, 110 2/3 innings pitched and 86 strikeouts during the 2013 season. In his absence, Penders is planning to use Milford’s Brian Ward, a senior left-hander, as the Sunday starter.
“He has earned it,” Penders said. “(Ward) has had a good preseason and looked really strong the last time out on Friday, so hopefully he can build off that. He is working off his change up and I expect him to have a good outing against Auburn (on Sunday).”
Cheshire’s Max Slade could be one of UConn’s key bullpen arms.
“I had a bunch of roles last year,” said Slade, who was 1-0 with a 3.80 ERA in 12 games as a sophomore. “I would come in for long relief. I got one start so whatever it takes it doesn’t matter to me, once a weekend, or twice a week, it doesn’t matter.
“I picked up a slider and I feel like my arm is a little healthier than it was last year, so I can sustain my velocity throughout the season. I didn’t really pitch at the beginning of the season so I wasn’t really healthy yet, and I also took the summer off. I started pitching in the fall and it has been going well so far.”
Cheshire’s Connor David, a junior catcher, freshman infielder Griffin Garabedian, a former Notre Dame of West Haven standout, and freshman pitcher Sam Nepiarsky, a former teamate of Siena’s at Amity, are also pushing for playing time for UConn, which opens Friday against Ohio State in Port Charlotte, Fla.