With only eight days until the tournament opener, some questions remain unanswered for the University of Maine baseball team.
The Black Bears have qualified for the America East Baseball Championship, but they’re not sure of their first-round opponent.
And while the tournament will be played somewhere in New York, Binghamton and Stony Brook must determine which will host the event.
Coach Steve Trimper’s Bears (30-20, 13-7 AE) enter the final week of the regular season in third place. They can finish no higher than second and no lower than third. UMaine, which is 2½ games behind Stony Brook (26-22, 15-6 AE), is preparing for a four-game set Friday and Saturday at Maryland Baltimore County.
League-leading Binghamton (27-18, 18-3 AE) needs one victory in this week’s three-game series at Stony Brook to lock up first place and home-field advantage for the four-team, double-elimination tournament, which begins May 26.
One win by the defending conference champion Bearcats means UMaine’s first-round opponent would be Stony Brook, regardless of which team finishes second in the standings.
Fourth-place Albany (10-36, 9-12 AE) awaits the regular-season champ for its first-round matchup.
Stony Brook still could finish as the top seed, but that would require a three-game sweep of Binghamton. That would give the Seawolves the tiebreaker by virtue of head-to-head record.
The Bears’ challenge now is to be playing their best ball over the next 10 days. Trimper liked the mental approach his players showed Sunday after a spotty effort in Saturday’s second game.
“The guys thought the game well,” Trimper said. “They thought their plays out, they went pitch by pitch in their head. It was a good, all-around team win.”
This week’s games are scheduled for Friday and Saturday, rather than Saturday and Sunday, to accommodate teams being able to prepare for the start of the tournament the following Wednesday (the 26th).
Toward that end, UMaine is contemplating altering its travel plans. Trimper said the Bears may travel from Baltimore directly to the tournament site, rather than bus 12-plus hours back to Orono, arriving Sunday morning at 8 or 9, then have to get back on the bus Tuesday morning for the eight- or nine-our trek to Binghamton or Stony Brook.
“We’re going to try to get ourselves a little more rest, as opposed to riding buses for the next week,” Trimper said.
That dynamic is magnified by the fact the tournament starts on a Wednesday this year rather than a Thursday. That move was made to build in a potential fourth or fifth day, if needed because of weather.
This year, the league is not requiring the tournament host to play at a field with lights.
Thus, UMaine is likely to divert from its usual pitching rotation against UMBC and utilize several pitchers for a few innings apiece in the series. It’s a nice luxury for the Bears to have.
“You run everybody out there and just take care of what they need to do to stay sharp,” Trimper said.
Jebb coming on strong for Bears
Matt Jebb has seen his role change during the course of the season.
He began 2010 as a starter, but struggled in his first two conference starts and was relegated to the bullpen. The junior righthander has been solid ever since.
Jebb goes into the UMBC series with a 2-3 record and a 6.12 earned run average.
Last Wednesday, he allowed eight hits and two runs in seven innings, with six strikeouts and no walks, in an 8-3 nonleague win over Northeastern.
“I’ve been trying to work my tail off to get back into it,” Jebb said Sunday. “I’ve had a pretty rough season so far, but I’m just trying to come in and help the team, whatever I can do.”
Then, on Sunday, Jebb pitched three hitless shutout innings, with four strikeouts and one walk, to earn a save in the Bears’ 4-2 victory over Albany in Orono.
“Matt Jebb came in and did a great job and we stuck with him, because he had his cutter going,” Trimper said.