ORONO, Maine — After struggling through one of its worst efforts of the season Saturday night, the University of Maine baseball team responded Sunday with a cohesive performance.
A.J. Bazdanes and Matt Jebb combined to pitch a two-hitter, while Justin Leisenheimer provided the offensive spark with a clutch two-run home run as the Black Bears earned a 4-2 America East victory over Albany at Mahaney Diamond.
UMaine clinched a spot in the America East tournament by virtue of a 9-5 victory in Saturday’s first game. The four-team, double-elimination event likely will be played at Binghamton (18-3 AE), which needs one win against Stony Brook (15-6) to earn that honor.
“I’ve never been to a playoff game before, so it’s a great feeling,” said Bears freshman Pat Thibodeau of Caribou, who knocked in the winning run Sunday. “I’m ready for the experience.”
In Saturday’s late game, UMaine dropped a 12-5 verdict.
UMaine plays doubleheaders Thursday and Friday at Maryland Baltimore County to close out the regular season.
On Sunday, former longtime UMaine coach John Winkin was in attendance as coach Steve Trimper’s Bears (30-20, 13-7 AE) overcame a gusty northwest wind and the Great Danes with strong pitching, errorless defense and timely hitting.
“If I could have drawn up a team win, this was it,” said Trimper, whose club stumbled Saturday night after clinching the program’s first playoff berth since 2007.
“You go day to day,” he added. “We talked for a good half an hour before this game, after playing so poorly [Saturday] night. We’ve got to go into the tournament with the team going in one direction, not offense, defense, pitching going all over the place.”
Trimper said Winkin made an impassioned postgame locker room speech to UMaine.
Albany scored two runs in the sixth inning Sunday off Bazdanes (6-4), who set a good tone on the mound. He allowed only two hits and two runs in six innings, walking five and striking out four.
The Bears responded quickly after relinquishing the lead.
Tyler Patzalek worked a two-out walk against loser Kasceim Graham (1-4), then rode home when Leisenheimer laced a low home run over the left-field fence to make it 2-2.
A fierce wind blowing in from right field affected all balls hit high into the air.
“I’m looking just to get something on a line,” said Leisenheimer, who homered for the third time in four games. “I honestly don’t know how it got out, but I kept it out of the wind stream.”
Matt Howard (two singles) followed with a pop-fly single to shallow right-center that eluded a diving try by second baseman Brian Bullard, then Thibodeau lined an opposite-field double to left-center, scoring the eventual winning run.
“I just kept going to that [left] side of the field today and it worked for me,” said Thibodeau, who explained the homer provided a huge spark.
“Howard got that hit, that little bleeder in there, and I was like, I’ve got to match that, I’ve got to get an RBI to go ahead right now,” he added.
Jebb, who pitched seven strong innings Wednesday in beating Northeastern, worked three innings of hitless relief to earn his first save. He struck out four, including the last three batters of the game.
“We talked about it in the clubhouse and we came out here today and just really put the pedal to the metal,” Jebb said. “Play defense and pitch great and you’re going to win ballgames.”
Joey Martin of Portland provided an insurance run in the seventh when his single enabled Joe Mercurio to score with a crafty slide that caused catch Ralph Keppler to drop the ball at home plate.
Keppler hit a two-run single in the sixth inning off Bazdanes, who walked three, one intentionally, in the inning.
In Saturday’s first game, Mercurio knocked in two runs with a sacrifice fly and a single, while Tony Patane posted two RBIs on a pair of singles, to spearhead a 12-hit attack.
Taylor Lewis stroked a double and two singles for the Bears, who reached Albany starter Zach Kraham (1-4) for 10 hits and eight runs in four innings.
Michael Fransoso’s two-run home run to right field in the second inning gave the Bears the lead for good (5-3). Patane’s two-run single during a three-run fourth gave UMaine some breathing room.
Thibodeau singled twice and scored two runs.
Steve Perakslis (4-4) picked up the victory in relief of starter Jeff Gibbs. The freshman allowed two hits and one run with three strikeouts in 2ª innings.
Keppler doubled and singled with an RBI and Adam Cutspec singled twice and knocked in a run for the Great Danes.
In Saturday’s second game, Albany scored four runs each in the second and third innings en route to the Bears’ most lopsided loss since a 12-2 defeat March 21 at Oregon State.
The Great Danes racked up 14 hits to support winning pitcher Ryan White (2-4), who allowed seven hits and four runs in 5ª innings.
UMaine starter Keith Bilodeau (4-2) was touched up for nine hits and eight runs in only 2¤ innings and the hosts never recovered.
“That was probably one of the worst games I’ve seen us play,” Patane said.
“It’s frustrating, it really is.”
Joey Martin of Portland stroked two doubles and a single to lead UMaine, while Mercurio hit a two-run homer and a single. Leisenheimer hit a solo homer and a single and Patane doubled and singled (1 RBI).
Mike Tirri hit an RBI single, Kyle Crean rapped a run-scoring double and Nolan Gaige stroked a two-run single in Albany’s four-run first, while Greg Muller and Keppler hit run-scoring singles in the four-run second inning.
“It was weird. We just played terrible,” Mercurio said.