UMaine eager for AE playoff return

Posted Feb. 12, 2010, at 11:02 p.m.

The University of Maine baseball team ended the 2009 season on a sour note.

The Black Bears, their pitching staff thinned by four injuries and a suspension, went from first place halfway through the America East season to not qualifying for the conference tournament.

Coach Steve Trimper’s ballclub returns with renewed enthusiasm this season as it seeks the program’s first postseason berth since 2007.

“Everybody in the locker room’s thinking Super Regionals,” said senior co-captain Tony Patane. “You can’t think that far ahead yet, but it’s good to have that thought process because everybody is on board, everybody wants to win.”

The Bears’ fortunes will depend greatly on their pitching. UMaine begins the season minus eight pitchers who accounted for 20 wins and six saves a year ago. That group includes junior lefthander Kevin Scanlan, who is academically ineligible.

Heading the mound veterans is junior righthander Matt Jebb, who went 7-3 with a 4.33 earned run average last spring. Others expected to hold down starting spots include sophomore righties A.J. Bazdanes (3-1, 4.30, 2 saves) and Keith Bilodeau (1-7, 4.38, 1 save).

UMaine also is counting on a group of youngsters.

Jeff Gibbs, a hard-throwing (93 mph) freshman righty, should have an immediate impact in the rotation, as will lefty senior transfer Barry Keiffer.

Freshman Steve Perakslis will see time as the closer as sophomore Kyle Benoit and junior Jimmy Cox of Bangor work their way back from Tommy John elbow surgery.

Others who will contribute out of the bullpen are senior righty and converted sidearmer Justin Latta, freshman RHP Chris Bernard of Scarborough, Mr. Maine Baseball for 2009, frosh LHP Carlos Ramirez, and possibly senior catcher and co-captain Myckie Lugbauer.

Senior Joe Miller underwent offseason surgery, but could be back by mid-April. Junior lefthander Jonathan Balentina also had surgery and likely will apply for a medical redshirt.

“You take that group there and then you bring back those injured guys as the course of the year goes on, and you’re talking about a pretty deep, consistent staff,” Trimper said.

In the everyday lineup, UMaine will work some newcomers into a solid nucleus. The Bears must replace nearly half their offensive run production from last season with the departure of seniors Kevin McAvoy of Brewer, Billy Cather and Danny Menendez, along with sophomore Jarrett Lukas of Old Town, who left the team to focus on his academics.

Heading the returnees is sophomore left fielder Ian Leisenheimer, who batted .356 with five home runs and 41 RBIs last season on his way to Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America recognition.

UMaine also welcomes back catcher Lugbauer (.321, 4 HR, 32 RBIs), shortstop Patane (.315, 5 HR, 31 RBI), junior first baseman and outfielder Joey Martin of Portland (.345, 19 RBI). All three are captains.

Others with considerable starting experience include sophomore designated hitter Justin Leisenheimer (.293, 3 HR, 22 RBI), sophomore OF Taylor Lewis (.282, 2 HR, 12 RBI), senior OF George Tager (.278, 10 RBI), sophomore 3B Kyle Stilphen of Pittston (.260, 3 HR, 23 RBI, 5 stolen bases) and senior catcher Joe Mercurio (.197, 1 HR, 9 RBI).

Freshman catchers Tyler Patzalek and Fran Whitten may see time at DH.

“I think this team’s more built to be a slugging percentage team where we can try to extra-base hit a lot,” said Trimper, who has a 109-104-2 record in five seasons at UMaine.

The Bears will have a different look as three players who combined for 60 stolen bases have departed.

“You play for the big inning,” Trimper said.

Defensively, UMaine is counting on freshman Mike Fransoso to replace the departed Menendez, who combined with Patane to turn a school-record 57 double plays and also set a single-season mark with 38 stolen bases.

Fransoso, who is penciled in as the leadoff batter, has meshed nicely.

“Fransoso, he can definitely get the job done plus more,” Patane said. “Up the middle, I think it’s going to be a treat to watch us this year, too.”

The speedy Lewis will patrol center field, combining with Lugbauer and his strong arm behind the plate to make the Bears solid up the middle.

Stilphen, who missed 20 games last season after suffering an eye injury in Florida, moves to third to replace Lukas. Martin will play some at first and also in right field.

Ian Leisenheimer returns in left and will get some backup from the likes of Tager and freshman Pat Thibodeau of Caribou. They, along with junior Matt Howard and sophomore Jesse Hamilton, also will vie for the right-field job when Martin plays first base.

Although there will be challenges, the Bears are shooting high.

“We have 14-15-16 position players that can make an impact,” Martin said. “It’s important to have that because of injuries, and matchups play a key role throughout the season.”

UMaine opens Feb. 19 with a three-game series at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. The Bears also play at No. 20 North Carolina and No. 25 Oregon State before starting their northern schedule.

“We want to start out the season playing good teams,” Martin said. “We want to go out there and be challenged. We want to face great pitching, great defense.”

Trimper knows he and assistant coaches Aaron Izaryk and Mike Cole must prepare and motivate the players to get them into the AE tournament.

“It’s just living up to our expectations and that’s my job,” said Trimper, who likes the emotional makeup of the team.

“We have a mature ballclub and we have a little bit of toughness to us. We have a blue-collar attitude.”

Blueberry Broadcasting will air 41 UMaine games this season on WAEI (910 AM) or WAEI (97.1 FM). Jim Churchill will handle the play-by-play.

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