ORONO, Maine — Growing up in Miami, Danny Menendez enjoyed the luxury of being able to play baseball year-round.
Last May, after his junior season at the University of Maine, circumstances conspired to leave Menendez without a summer league team on which to play.
Instead, he returned home and began working five days a week with a personal trainer. The results have been dramatic.
This spring, the gritty senior second baseman has been a two-way catalyst for coach Steve Trimper’s Black Bears. Menendez has boosted his batting average, improved his speed and continued his strong defense to help UMaine post a 20-13 record heading into this weekend’s America East series against Maryland Baltimore County at Mahaney Diamond.
Doubleheaders Saturday and Sunday begin at 1 p.m.
“I’d probably have to say that Danny’s our MVP of the first half of the season,” Trimper said.
“He’s been a pleasant upgrade of what he had been in the past and he’s always been a very good player for us.”
Menendez has been playing the best baseball of his career, which spans 184 starts in 188 games. He ranks fourth on the team with a .345 batting average. He has two home runs and 22 runs batted in.
The 5-foot-9, 175-pounder leads the Bears with 26 walks and is second in on-base percentage at .468. Menendez has struck out only nine times, once every 12.6 at-bats.
He has excelled in his role as UMaine’s No. 2 batter, a spot suited to a player with excellent bat control who can both advance runners and get on base himself.
“Hitting in that [No.] 2 spot he’s consistently stealing bases, getting on base, playing good defense,” Trimper said. “He’s driving in runs and doing other things for us.”
Menendez also has successfully laid down 12 sacrifice bunts, which ranks second in the country behind Joe Scott of Cal State-Fullerton (14).
“I’ve always worked on my bunting a lot. I see it as another thing in my game that I can use,” Menendez said.
“It makes a big difference, especially if you’re in a tight game, a one-run game, and you need to get the runner over,” he added.
Once on base, Menendez has put pressure on opponents. After stealing 25 bases during his first three seasons, Menendez is 20-for-25 in 2009.
He could threaten the UMaine single-season record of 35 set by Chad White of Brewer back in 1993.
“He knows how to run the bases well,” Trimper said. “He knows how to time pitchers up. He’s a base-stealer.”
It is on the basepaths where Menendez has noticed the biggest gains since going through his rigorous offseason regimen.
“I think it made a huge difference for me,” he said. “I think it’s a combination of being faster and being more aggressive on the bases because I’m more confident now.”
Menendez continues to be a defensive standout for the Bears at second base. He has good range and isn’t afraid to throw his body around to make plays.
He has committed only five errors this season in 143 chances (.966) and has been part of a slick double-play duo in the middle along with junior shortstop Tony Patane.
UMaine already has turned 42 double plays this season (1.29 per game, fifth in Division I). With at least 21 games left, it is in position to challenge the program’s single-season mark of 64 established in 2005.
“It’s something you learn through practice,” Menendez said. “You work on feeds and you work on the timing. You kind of learn the other guys’ tendencies.”
Menendez is one of five UMaine captains this season. His leadership style is more by exhibiting his competitive fire, a la Boston’s Dustin Pedroia.
“He plays the game with passion and he plays it hard,” Trimper said. “He tries to outwork everybody he can. Danny’s pushed a lot of kids to become better because of how he approaches the game and how he leads.”
Menendez credits his parents, Gus and Ana, along with older brother Gus (who played at the University of Miami), with being instrumental in his baseball development.
“My family’s been a huge influence on me,” Danny said. “My dad always helped me practice, even my mom, too. She was throwing BP (batting practice) and hitting my brother and me ground balls.”
Menendez, along with UMaine teammate Alejandro Balsinde, initially was recruited by Trimper out of Christopher Columbus High School to play at Manhattan College. After attending the school for one semester, they followed Trimper to his new job at UMaine.
It hasn’t always been easy for Menendez going to school 1,250 miles from home and playing in the cold, but he adjusted nicely.
“With the program here and the facilities, all the guys, and fans to back us, it’s been a great fit. I really couldn’t ask for a better situation,” Menendez said.
Menendez, who is majoring in business with a concentration in marketing, plans to return to Florida after graduation to be near his family. In the meantime, he’ll try to spark UMaine to an America East title while chasing the dream of playing pro ball.