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It's UConn baseball's turn to go national

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published April 17. 2014 4:00AM

New York

And so the UConn-palooza rolls on. Will it ever end? Neither rain nor snow (in right field Wednesday at Yankee Stadium) nor sleet (that fell early Wednesday morning) could contain its reign. It's not even basketball anymore. Let the record show that Wednesday, April 16, 2014 was UConn Baseball Day in the majors, a tribute to what coach Jim Penders has wrought.

It was a little after noon in the Big Bad City and there was Mike Olt, UConn kid, standing on the lawn of Yankee Stadium. Mike Olt, designated hitter, Chicago Cubs.

And then it was a little after 8 p.m. and there was George Springer, UConn kid, his Major League debut, standing at Minute Maid Park in Houston, in the same state where the men's basketball team made history a week earlier. George Springer, outfielder, Houston Astros.

This is the first time since UConn program alums (Jesse Carlson and Jeff Fulchino) played in the majors at the same time in 2010. And the first time in the Penders era. It might not be long until UConn could have three or four Penders kids in the majors, what with Nick Ahmed, Matt Barnes and Greg Nappo all in Triple-A.

Indeed, who'd have blamed Penders, even though baby it was cold outside, if he went to the mound at J.O. Christian Field sometime Wednesday and did the Leonardo DiCaprio "I'm king of the world" thing?

"We've had texts going with all the guys from UConn," Olt was saying Wednesday from the Cubs' clubhouse, alluding to recent developments. "It says a lot about the bonds we had there. To see UConn basketball do that even other sports, like soccer and field hockey. It's cool to be part of that."

Olt, a Branford native, discovered he made the Cubs the day the UConn men upset Michigan State at Madison Square Garden to reach the Final Four. A daily double that eclipsed all the daily doubles he hit at UConn. His method of celebration? Chips and dip at Chili's.

"That's Mike," Penders said. "He takes his work seriously. But never himself. I think that comes from growing up in a house with all those brothers. You start taking yourself too seriously, you get (needled and teased)."

How timely, really, that UConn baseball gets this moment. Because nobody else - nobody - does more with less at UConn than Penders, whose facilities are, ahem, modest compared to his brethren in the American and formerly the Big East. His teams have made NCAA tournaments in recent years, all from a part of the country that's barely a boil on the buttocks of the college baseball stratum.

And he's done it with guys like Olt and Springer. Connecticut kids who had Kevin Ollie levels of faith in Connecticut's flagship institution.

"Mike is the poster boy for our program," Penders said Tuesday night, before he knew of Springer's promotion. "Mike's the in-state guy who said 'yes' to us when he could have played anywhere. He saw a value in playing for good ol' State U."

Olt's brother, Brad, once played and coached for the great Roger Bidwell at Avery Point. Mike Olt knew the program even before attending a UConn baseball camp during his high school days.

"From that camp on, it was an easy decision," Olt said. "I think the way that coaching staff is, they get the best out of the players. We were a small baseball school. No one really knew about us. What that whole coaching staff did to make it a big time program says a lot about them. Ask any of the baseball players that were there. We wouldn't be where we are now if it weren't for everything we learned there."

Olt set the UConn single-season record with 23 homers at UConn in 2010, some of which earned a John Sterling-esque home from call from UConn play-by-play voice Joe D'Ambrosio: "a lightning bolt from Mike Olt."

Olt's lightning bolts earned him a spot in the Texas Rangers' organization later in the spring of 2010. By 2012, he played 16 games with the big club. He was traded to the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal during the offseason. And it wasn't an easy offseason.

Olt was hit in the head in the spring of 2013, leading to complications that he thought might imperil his career.

"Last year was tough. We couldn't pinpoint what was going on," Olt said. "We got to the offseason and all the worse case scenarios. It turned out to be something really small. After I got hit in the head, my tear ducts and eyes weren't able to flush out any allergies. I used some special eye drops and it's night and day compared to last year."

Olt had been a pinch hitter for the Cubs until he started at designated hitter. Which came against Masahiro Tanaka. Result: three at bats, three strikeouts. Pinch-hitting didn't sound so bad for a day.

"I have new respect for the guys who come off the bench to pinch hit," Olt said. "At this level, you can't just go through the motions and hit. It's not rookie ball. I've done a lot more research. I used to look at film and didn't know what I was looking at. Now I'm able to pick up more things."

One of which, though, was not the phone Wednesday to talk to Springer. Olt knew Springer had enough on his mind. So he sent a tweet wishing his old pal luck.

And then came the game. At 1:38 p.m., Mike Olt emerged from the dugout to the on deck circle. How did he get there?

He took the stairs.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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