ORONO, Maine — Turning the double play successfully is the result of many key factors.
The players involved — especially the second baseman and shortstop — must be excellent fielders. More importantly, they must work together on the skills and timing necessary to get the ball to the right players as quickly as possible.
Those elements are very much in evidence this spring for the University of Maine, which has set a school single-season record with 65 double plays in 51 games.
The mark surpasses the record of 64 set by the 2005 squad in 54 contests.
“It’s a good team stat and it’s a good team record to fulfill, so it feels good,” said sophomore shortstop Tony Patane, who with senior second baseman Danny Menendez has formed the Black Bears’ dynamic duo in the middle of the diamond.
They are involved in the vast majority of the twin killings, including the most common double plays: the 6-4-3 (shortstop to second baseman to first baseman) and the 4-6-3 (second to short to first).
“I think it’s a testament to the hard work of our whole infield,” said UMaine head coach Steve Trimper, whose team leads America East with a .967 fielding percentage heading into a critical four-game series at Stony Brook starting Friday.
“They worked extremely hard in the offseason,” he said.
Discriminating fans might wonder how the new FieldTurf on Mahaney Diamond has affected the Bears’ ability to turn double plays.
Ground balls roll smoothly and predictably to the fielders, but the onus is on them to field the ball, make the toss and complete the relay throw without hesitation or error.
“A ground ball’s a ground ball, no matter where it’s played,” Patane offered.
“I just feel like a ground ball, if we execute, it’s a double play.”
Menendez conceded the predictability of the playing surface allows him to play back farther at Mahaney Diamond, increasing his lateral range.
“You don’t have to worry so much about the hops, so I feel like I can get a little more depth, still get to the base on time,” Menendez said.
UMaine turned 30 double plays in 21 games (1.43 per game) this season at Mahaney Diamond. Away from home, they averaged 1.17 per contest (35 in 30 games).
Also, in four games this spring on the 3-year-old FieldTurf at Hartford, the Bears had six double plays (1.5 per game).
Patane explained the UMaine FieldTurf has been “slow” and was especially so early in the season before the shredded rubber and sand mixture settled down a bit. The result is more urgency making plays.
“It’s not like we have more time turning a double play,” Patane said. “I’ve actually sat back and waited for a ground ball to turn a double play and really had to quicken things up.”
Trimper said an important aspect of the FieldTurf is the Bears’ ability to get out and practice more often once they return home for the northern portion of their schedule.
It wasn’t like that a year ago.
“When the visiting team came here, they didn’t know it [the field] wasn’t good. They got by sometimes better than us, because we were always waiting for that bad hop,” Trimper said.
“The surface alone allows us to practice more of those things, take 100 ground balls a day, and have a lot more confidence,” he added.
Infield coach Jared Holowaty has drilled the Bears hard in turning double plays. The repetition has enabled Menendez and Patane to develop a productive rapport around the base.
The timing and location of the toss from one player to the other determines the ease of the turn and the success of completing the DP.
“Double plays are about feeds, more than catching a ground ball,” Menendez said. “If you don’t get a good feed, it’s going to take longer to turn.”
The fielders also have to be keenly aware of each baserunner’s speed, which determines whether the process must be quickened.
Patane and Menendez are quick to share the credit for the frequency of double plays with their coaches and teammates. Third baseman Jarrett Lukas has initiated several DPs from the corner, while the first basemen have snared several throws that were off the mark.
Pitchers have successfully induced ground balls, setting the stage for the infielders to perform their magic.
“Our defense has certainly improved with a lot of hard work, some good, talented kids and a little bit of maturity, too,” Trimper said.
Menendez pointed to the 6-4-3 double play as usually being the easiest involving he and Patane. They view the 5-4-3 (along with the infrequent 3-6-3) as the most difficult.
“The 5-4-3 is tough, because sometimes the ball is hit so hard, Jarrett has got to give me time to get to second base,” Menendez said.