ORONO, Maine — Last season, the University of Maine baseball team found out the hard way that every game counts in conference play.
The Black Bears finished in fifth place, one game behind third-place Albany and fourth-place Vermont, and missed the four-team America East tournament for the second straight year.
UMaine doesn’t plan to allow that to happen again.
Halfway through their America East schedule, coach Steve Trimper’s Bears find themselves sharing first place in the league standings.
Coming off a three-game weekend sweep of Hartford at Mahaney Diamond, UMaine (23-16) owns a 7-3 conference record and is tied with Binghamton (16-17) for the top spot.
“We’re fortunate, in a way, to come away with a sweep,” Trimper said. “It doesn’t matter who you play. Some of the misconceptions are, you’re not playing a great team. But in conference baseball, all bets are off.”
The Bears received a wakeup call of sorts against the Hawks and had to come from behind to win Sunday’s finale 4-3. They realize there is little room for error.
“We’ve just got to bounce back, because if we play like that against Stony Brook next weekend, we’re in for a rude awakening,” senior co-captain Tony Patane said of what will be a key four-game series at Mahaney Diamond.
A little confidence can go a long way, but it can be difficult to maintain momentum in baseball. UMaine can’t afford lapses, mental or physical.
“I think we needed to come out a little bit stronger than we did,” said freshman Michael Fransoso. “With the two wins [Saturday], we kind of cruised into [Sunday]. They came out to battle and we didn’t but, like coach Trimper said in the huddle, good teams find a way to get the job done when they’re not playing their best baseball and that’s what we did today.”
UMaine went into the series fully expecting to sweep Hartford (8-24, 2-8 AE). Even so, the Bears experienced a lack of run production in the second and third games and committed four errors in the finale.
“Give credit to them. It’s tough in conference to get a sweep, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” said UMaine junior Matt Howard.
Sophomore pitchers A.J. Bazdanes and Keith Bilodeau were outstanding in Saturday’s second game, combining on a four-hitter, while freshman Jeff Gibbs and senior Justin Latta teamed up to allow four hits and no unearned runs Sunday.
UMaine was held in check by Hartford pitchers Mike Thatcher and Chris Greiner in games two and three, respectively. The Bears had difficulty getting runners home.
On Sunday, UMaine went 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position (at second or third base) but won on RBI singles by Howard and Fransoso in the eighth inning.
“We didn’t do a great job offensively producing,” Trimper said. “We got guys on, moved them over, tried to manufacture runs and then we didn’t produce them.”
The Bears left 11 runners on base Sunday.
UMaine spread its hits throughout the lineup in the series, with Patane (5-for-7, 3 RBI) and Fransoso (4-for-9, 2 RBI, 4 runs scored) leading the way.
Taylor Lewis, Tyler Patzalek and Joey Martin, the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 batters, struggled. They were a combined 6-for-33 (.182) on the weekend.
Player of the year candidate Taylor, who entered the series leading America East in batting, was hitless in his last nine at-bats after belting a key, three-run home run in Saturday’s Game 1 victory.
The Bears’ offensive frustrations were evident during Sunday’s game, but they regrouped in time.
“The voices started getting elevated and I had to play ‘good cop’ for once,” Trimper said. “I said, ‘guys, time out, we’ve got to learn how to win in these situations and keep cool and keep our heads and perform in these situations.’ The guys kind of settled down in the last inning and we swung the bats and got guys on and did some things right.”
UMaine plays 1 p.m. doubleheaders Saturday and Sunday against Stony Brook (16-19, 6-4 AE). They know they’ll need a better effort against the Seawolves if they hope to stay on top.
“We love playing in front of our fans and we love playing at home, so it will be a big series next weekend,” Howard said. “Hopefully, we can take care of business.”