Had the University of Maine baseball team qualified for this week’s America East Baseball Championship, talk would have centered around a youthful pitching staff that developed quickly and persevered in the face of injuries and adversity.
Instead, the season is over for coach Steve Trimper’s Black Bears, whose lack of pitching depth ultimately proved costly.
UMaine (32-23) missed the postseason for the second straight year, finishing one game shy of earning a berth with a 13-11 league mark.
“I thought we would be playing this week, but now we’ve got to start looking ahead to 2010,” Trimper said Monday.
“I give our team so much credit because these guys grinded, they played hard, they fought every single day.”
UMaine integrated several freshmen in key roles, especially on the mound, but injuries wracked the pitching staff.
Inconsistent offense in key situations during conference play also bit the Bears. They were 24-5 when scoring six runs or more, but had an 8-18 record when scoring five runs or less.
UMaine went 3-10 in one-run games, 3-6 in league play.
“Our offense was steady. We weren‘t a slug-’em team, but we did a lot of things right,” Trimper said.
The irony is, the Bears could have won the wide-open America East had they qualified.
UMaine was paced by three senior starters: Right fielder Kevin McAvoy of Brewer, center fielder Billy Cather and second baseman Danny Menendez.
McAvoy led the squad with a .379 batting average, 10 home runs and a .649 slugging percentage. He was second with 39 RBIs.
Cather (.344, 6 HR, 39 RBI) paced the outfield and was second on the team with 16 steals.
Menendez (.312, 2 HR, 29 RBI, 20 sacrifice hits) helped set two UMaine single-season records. He stole 38 bases and teamed with junior shortstop Tony Patane in turning many of the Bears’ 71 double plays.
“Danny Menendez was outstanding because of the example he set for the other guys,” Trimper said.
Despite many setbacks, pitching was a strength.
UMaine went into the season having lost sophomore Kyle Benoit (a 2008 starter) to Tommy John elbow surgery, a fate that befell classmate Jimmy Cox of Bangor after he was hurt in the season-opener.
The Bears then dealt with an arm injury to junior Joe Miller, who was expected to be the ace. He did not return after pitching on March 13.
“At every level it’s pitching, pitching, pitching,” Trimper said. “The injuries were a little bit tough on our bullpen, but as a coach you want to overcome the challenges.”
Those challenges gave UMaine’s young pitchers an opportunity to shine.
Freshman Pat Quinn went 6-0 with a 1.42 earned run average before being suspended indefinitely after an April 27 disorderly conduct arrest. Teams hit .147 against him.
Sophomore Jonathan Balentina (3-0, 3.88) pitched his way into the rotation, then missed the last two series with an injury. Classmate Kevin Scanlan (6-3, 3.96, 2 saves) responded with a late surge.
Freshmen A.J. Bazdanes (3-1, 4.30, 2 saves) and Keith Bilodeau (1-7, 4.38, save) also were key components, with Bilodeau moving to the bullpen as injuries mounted.
Alejandro Balsinde (2-4, 4.22, 4 saves), the lone senior pitcher, logged 23 appearances as a closer and setup man.
A staff that got 20ª innings from freshman Matt Klaczkiewicz led AE with a 4.37 ERA in league games.
UMaine embraced its new FieldTurf and was the top defensive team in the league with a .977 fielding percentage and 33 double-plays in 24 games.
Junior catcher Myckie Lugbauer (.321, 4 HR, 32 RBI), a likely draft pick, anchored home plate, throwing out 12 of 32 potential base-stealers while making only three errors in 304 chances (.990).
Other top performers included redshirt freshman outfielder and designated hitter Ian Leisenheimer (.356, 5 HR), who led the club with 41 RBIs, sophomore third baseman Jarrett Lukas of Old Town (.320, 5 HR, 35 RBI), Patane (.315, 5 HR, 31 RBI), soph 1B Joey Martin of Portland (.345, 19 RBI) and redshirt freshman 1B Justin Leisenheimer (.293, 3 HR, 22 RBI) and freshman infielder Kyle Stilphen of Pittston (.260, 3 HR, 23 RBI).
Speedy freshman outfielder Taylor Lewis (.282, 2 HR, 12 RBI), junior OF George Tager (.278, 10 RBI) and junior catcher Joe Mercurio (.197, 1 HR, 9 RBI) also figured prominently.
UMaine appears to have a solid returning nucleus and will welcome in a recruiting class that includes pitchers Jeff Gibbs, Steve Perakslis (SS) and Bernard of Scarborough, SS Mike Fransoso, catchers Tyler Patzalek and Fran Whitten (1B), and OF Carlos Ramirez.
“Looking ahead, we’re excited. I think we’ll be pretty good next year,” Trimper said.