ORONO, Maine — The America East championship is the University of Maine’s ticket to the NCAA baseball tournament.
After two straight seasons failing to qualify for the America East tournament, the Black Bears are determined to again punch their ticket.
The quest begins in earnest today as coach Steve Trimper’s ballclub (15-13) opens a three-game conference series at the University at Albany (1-20).
“We’re excited,” said senior catcher Joe Mercurio. “Albany always plays us tough. The two years I’ve been here, we’ve won one game against them.”
America East Conference is trying to reinvent itself a bit this season after Vermont eliminated its program at the conclusion of last season. The start of league play among the remaining six teams this weekend ushers in the new two-division format.
UMaine, Albany and Hartford are in the North Division, while Binghamton, Stony Brook and Maryland Baltimore County make up the South.
The teams within each division will play two, three-game series, home and away. When facing teams in the other division, the series will be four games, with the home site alternating each year.
“I absolutely love it,” Trimper said. “It makes a winner out of the weekend.”
For intradivision series, Saturday will include a seven-inning game followed by a nine-inning contest, then a nine-inning game on Sunday. However, because of expected cool and windy weather this weekend, the format in Albany was changed and will feature a nine-inning game Saturday at 2 p.m., followed by a noon double-header Sunday with games of seven and nine innings.
Outside the division, teams will retain the 7-9, 7-9 format for Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Despite the unbalanced schedule, including six games against two divisional foes and four each against the three nondivision opponents, the four playoff teams will be determined by overall record in conference play.
There also are other dynamics that might help the new alignment intensify America East baseball action.
“That’s the exciting part, we’re creating rivalries, but we’re also creating series where you make adjustments for when you play them the next time,” Trimper said.
By the time the teams get to the postseason, there will be plenty of history between the teams and the possibility of some interesting dynamics developing.
“It’s good to play teams more than once because it gives you a familiarity with them so if you meet them in the tournament, you’re not just guessing off the first time you played them,” Mercurio said. “It’s more of a professional feel. I like it.”
UMaine is looking to get back on track against an Albany program that has dominated this series in recent years. Coach Jon Mueller’s Great Danes have won 14 of the last 17 meetings dating back to the last game of the 2005 season.
“We feel we’ve got enough firepower in our pitching staff and enough offense that we should be able to take them down this year and give everybody pretty stiff competition in our conference to where we should be very successful,” Mercurio said.
Another important byproduct of the realignment may be helping reduce wear and tear on America East pitching staffs.
“I’m very adamant that a four-game series in two days is a lot of baseball,” Trimper said. “It’s a lot for one day, let alone two days in a row. Almost every [pitching] staff in our conference had an injury last year.”
UMaine had more than its share of pitching injuries, although some were incurred prior to the start of the season.