With final exams soon to be behind them, the members of the University of Maine baseball team are looking forward to focusing solely on baseball.
Coach Steve Trimper’s Black Bears need to regroup a bit after being swept last weekend in their four-game America East series at Albany.
Shaky relief pitching and a few injuries have slowed UMaine’s quest to earn one of four playoff spots and, potentially, host the tournament in Orono.
UMaine (28-19, 9-7 AE) is gearing up for a crucial four-game set against conference leader Binghamton (23-15, 10-2 AE) Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Mahaney Diamond.
“That was a tough weekend, but we really want to bounce back this week and really take it to Binghamton,” said senior co-captain Billy Cather. “If we do have a great weekend, it’s really going to springboard us into Stony Brook.”
Binghamton, which already has lost four league games because of inclement weather, has a solid hold on first place in the AE standings. Albany (13-7 AE) has moved into second place, while UMaine and Stony Brook are tied for third place.
The Bears are competing with Stony Brook and Vermont for the right to host the conference tournament, as neither Binghamton or Albany has access to a field with lights for the event.
“We really haven’t had too much of a slide like this past four games, but we really are staying positive,” said Cather, who pointed out the Bears have experienced very few blowout losses this season. “I think we’re going to come back and play tough.”
The Bears have been dealing of late with injuries to key players. Junior shortstop Tony Patane played in both games Saturday before sitting out Sunday with soreness in his shoulder.
That forced Trimper to put redshirt freshman Justin Leisenheimer, who has played mostly at first base, at third base and move sophomore Jarrett Lukas from third over to shortstop.
UMaine made only two errors in the four games at Albany, both by first baseman Joey Martin of Portland.
“We didn’t play all that bad, we just got caught in bad situations,” Trimper said. “A couple guys got banged up at the wrong time.”
Sophomore lefthander Jonathan Balentina worked five scoreless innings in Saturday’s first game, but was lifted after his forearm tightened up. He was taken out as a precaution.
Meanwhile, freshman Kyle Stilphen of Pittston has experienced some vision problems in the left eye he injured when hit by a bad-hop grounder in Florida back in March. It prevented him from playing in the infield, although he did try to bat.
The Bears also hit lots of balls hard, but Cather said the Great Danes made several sterling defensive plays in the outfield to rob UMaine batters.
UMaine had opportunities to win at least two games at Albany, but squandered two late-inning leads because of poor relief pitching.
“Albany’s a decent team, but we had the two games won,” Trimper said. “We were up 5-2 and 1-0. We’ve got to win those games and after we didn’t, it put a damper on the weekend.”
The Bears head into the Binghamton series needing to rework their starting rotation after freshman Pat Quinn was suspended from the team for the rest of the season for violating team rules.
If Balentina’s arm feels OK, he is likely to be joined in the starting rotation by Matt Jebb, A.J. Bazdanes and Kevin Scanlan.
Scanlan, a sophomore lefthander, worked 4¤ innings of two-hit, one-run relief last Saturday and appears to be rounding back into form.
“Scanlan looked good, he pitched very well, so hopefully we can keep him going,” Trimper said.
The Bears know their hopes for reaching the postseason and hosting the tournament will come down to the final eight games.
“We’ve got the toughest two things coming up, so we’re going to really need to play well to beat them,” Cather said.