Connecticut baseball coach Jim Penders happens to be a big fan of the old Seinfeld sitcom. Last week, as he tried to determine an approach to the Big East tournament for his eighth-seeded Huskies, he drew on the world of George Costanza.
“I said, ‘We have to Costanza this tournament; do the opposite of what we should do. See what happens. What the heck do we have to lose?’ ” Penders said Sunday in an telephone interview with UConnPlaybook.com. “George went off on [Yankee owner George] Steinbrenner, gets promoted. He would ask a girl out for a date because he lives in his parents’ basement and he’s 43 years old.
“Do the opposite of what we should do and see if we get a good result.”
But UConn is not living in a Bizarro World episode invented by the mind of Jerry Seinfeld. The Huskies will actually gather Monday at noon to find out their regional destination for the NCAA tournament. And that’s exactly the opposite of the outcome predicted by so many in the Big East.
Instead of a quick exit from the tournament in Clearwater, Fla., the Huskies closed out the Big East championship Sunday by defeating Notre Dame 8-1 to win the conference title and the Big East’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Penders was still floating on air as his team prepared to board a plane for the flight home Sunday night.
“Personally, it’s really special,” Penders said. “I’ve been watching those tournaments since I was 13 years old. I had the privilege of playing in three championship games as a player. It took the third time to get it done. I’ve coached in four of them now as a head coach and it took the fourth one to get it done. It’s been really tough to get.
“I can’t say I’ve ever dreamed of winning a regional championship but I have dreamed of winning a Big East championship, and a [College World Series] championship in Omaha for as long as I can remember. It makes it a little extra sweet tonight.”
Penders received a Gatorade shower from his players after lefthander Anthony Marzi pitched a complete game four-hitter on two days’ rest. No disrespect to Marzi, but that too was the opposite of most anticipated. There was speculation that Penders would give the ball to Carson Cross, the starter in UConn’s first tournament game when the Huskies upset No. 1 Louisville on Wednesday night.
Penders called Marzi’s effort “incredibly courageous.” Asked how much courage it took for him to start Marzi on short rest, Penders said, “None at all.”
“He made it really easy on me,” Penders said. “He made it so easy by wanting [the ball]. We talked about [starting] Carson Cross. He wasn’t quite ready. He was honest. Anthony said, ‘I can get this done.’ And he did just that.”
Penders said Cross is fine and simply had his normal back stiffness after a start.
“He needs his days [between starts],” Penders said. “It would have been really surprising if he had given us a quality start.”
“That will go down in the annals as one of the great moments, certainly in our program, with him taking the ball with two days’ rest and throwing a complete game,” Penders said. “It was inspiring.”
Asked to put it in perspective, in terms of Big East tournament accomplishments, Penders brought up two other memorable moments. UConn’s Chris Bisson hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning to break a tie and give the Huskies (and Penders, as a player) a 4-2 victory over Seton Hall in the 1994 title game. The other was Mo Vaughn’s 500-foot home run off UConn pitcher Charles Nagy – “the longest home run I’ve ever seen” – in 1987 at Muzzy Field in Bristol.
After limping to the finish line in the regular season, Penders knows a four-game run like UConn put together in Clearwater can give a team momentum for the NCAA tournament.
“Sure it can,” Penders said. “Confidence is king. I saw our most confident swings of the year today, on the biggest stage and on television. We had great at-bats.
“I don’t see any reason why it can’t get us going. It’s tough to stop when you get a team of horses – or a team of dogs, I should say – pulling in one direction as hard as they can, not caring who gets the credit. We played very unselfishly over the last four games. I’m just hoping that continues next weekend wherever we end up.”
Once Penders learns UConn’s opponent and where the Huskies must travel, he will get the dog sled ready again. And search for a new motivational tool. He’s already played the Costanza card.
“Mush,” Penders said.