ORONO, Maine — A year has made a huge difference for at least three members of the University of Maine baseball team.
Seniors Joe Mercurio and Justin Latta, along with sophomore Taylor Lewis, excelled during the Black Bears’ Florida swing, contributing to UMaine’s productive trip.
Coach Steve Trimper’s squad returned Sunday with a 7-8 record, which included a 6-3 mark in Florida.
“This trip is designed to get us a lot of playing time, a lot of innings for guys and try to start to develop our everyday guys and our role guys,” Trimper said Tuesday after batting practice at Mahaney Diamond.
The Bears are preparing for a three-game set at No. 18 Oregon State that begins Friday night.
Offense hasn’t been a problem thus far for UMaine. The Bears averaged 11.6 runs in Florida and have tallied 8.1 runs per game overall.
“I thought we did a very good job, probably an ‘A’ job, of hitting average pitching,” Trimper said. “I think we did a good job of hitting good pitching.”
Center fielder Lewis set the tone. He leads the team with a .419 batting average, 26 hits, six triples and 19 RBIs. Lewis ranks first in on-base percentage (.493) and is tied for the top spot with four stolen bases.
He batted .553 in Florida (21-for-38) while scoring 17 runs and driving in 15 in nine games. At one point, Lewis put together a string of 13 consecutive at-bats in which he reached base safely. He has hit in nine straight contests.
“When I was in that streak, to be honest, in my mind I knew they weren’t going to get me out,” said Lewis, who has cut down his swing, especially in two-strike situations. “It’s great to have that confidence. I wish I had it all the time.”
Lewis hit .282 as a freshman, part-time player in 2009.
Other early-season standouts include junior first baseman-outfielder Joey Martin of Portland (.385, 5 doubles, 17 RBIs, 4 stolen bases), catcher Mercurio (.378, 3 HR, 12 RBIs), sophomore left fielder Ian Leisenheimer (.317, 3 HR, 15 RBIs) and freshman second baseman Mike Fransoso (.317, 1 HR, 10 RBIs, 4 steals).
Mercurio, a backup last year, has surpassed his hit, home run and RBI totals from 2009, when he batted .197 in 25 games.
“I came back, I knew my situation,” Mercurio said. “I worked overly hard in the fall and over the winter … finally found one [change] that worked and made the adjustment inseason. It’s working out so far.”
Martin, who batted .450 in Florida, hit safely in all nine games, closing out the trip by going 12-for-18 with six RBIs in the final four contests.
Fransoso has settled into the leadoff spot, where he has drawn a team-best 14 walks en route to scoring a team-leading 18 runs.
Senior shortstop Tony Patane (.242, 2 HR, 9 RBIs), sophomore third baseman Kyle Stilphen of Pittston (.197, 1 HR, 3 RBIs) and senior catcher Myckie Lugbauer (.180, 5 RBIs) have struggled with the bat.
Latta has been the big surprise among the pitchers. The righthander, who was converted to a sidearm delivery during the offseason, has been the mainstay of the bullpen.
Latta is 3-0 with a save and boasts a 2.29 earned run average. Opponents are hitting only .176 against him in nine games.
“I love it,” said the soft-spoken Texan. “I like having a chance to get out there every game. That’s pretty cool.”
Collectively, UMaine’s starters have been up and down. Junior Matt Jebb (0-2, 7.91 ERA), freshman Jeff Gibbs (1-1, 4.91), sophomores A.J. Bazdanes (1-2, 4.80) and Keith Bilodeau (0-0, 10.54), and freshman Steve Perakslis (1-1, 3.26, save) have combined for only four quality starts (going six or more innings and allowing three or fewer earned runs).
As starters, that group has a combined 6.87 ERA.
However, the staff has performed better in relief, led by Latta, Barry Keiffer (1-1, 6.00) and Lugbauer (0-0, 0.00, save). Bears relievers own a 3.95 ERA.
“We pitched well, outside of the fact that we gave up too many walks,” Trimper said.
“Some of the early-season woes that we had was guys are working on three pitches, they’re trying to be a little bit too fine,” he added. “One of the goals that we’re trying to take away from that is we’re trying to attack hitters.”
Trimper has been pleased with the progress of players like Latta, Mercurio and Lewis.
“It’s a testament to them working hard,” he said.
UMaine has played sound defense, committing 20 errors (1.3 per game) while turning 19 double plays. Fransoso has stepped in smoothly at second base, while Stilphen is back at third full time.
Trimper attributed some of the errors to playing on hard, unforgiving Florida fields. He said there were only a few throwing errors.