ORONO — There are question marks as the University of Maine baseball team prepares for Friday night’s opener at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
Coach Steve Trimper’s ballclub heads west with three freshman starters in the infield, a new catcher and two first-year players in the outfield mix.
While that might sound like potential growing pains for a UMaine squad that was 34-22 last season and lost its first two games in the America East tournament, there is plenty of optimism around Mahaney Clubhouse.
One thing the Bears do have is pitching. Junior righthander A.J. Bazdanes and sophomore righties Jeff Gibbs and Steve Perakslis, who combined to win 16 games last season, are among eight UMaine pitchers with considerable experience.
Despite losing 14 wins (41 percent) and 203 ? (43 percent) of their innings pitched from 2010, the Bears have plenty of arms. Versatile junior righty Keith Bilodeau is joined by classmates Kevin Scanlan, Jon Balentina and Kyle Benoit, along with senior Joe Miller, as other veterans on the staff.
“I think we’re a lot more driven,” said Gibbs, UMaine’s top pitcher (5-4, 3.94 earned run average) in 2010. “We’re excited. We’ve worked a lot harder this year. We’re just ready to go.”
Bilodeau has dropped more than 50 pounds and lefty Scanlan returns after being academically ineligible. Lefthander Balentina and righties Benoit and Miller are ready after injuries or rehab cost them all or most of last season.
“It all kind of came together, pitching-wise, in the same year,” Trimper said. “We have some talented guys who are going to give us the kind of depth you would dream about.”
The Bears also hope to welcome closer D.J. Voisine, a transfer from the University of Connecticut who must be cleared by the NCAA, along with freshman Shaun Coughlin, redshirt freshman outfielder-pitcher Fran Whitten and others.
The challenge for Trimper and pitching coach Jason Spaulding is establishing a strong rotation and determining relief roles.
“It’s great on paper, but we’ve got to get it done now,” Trimper said.
UMaine did lose senior Matt Jebb, who is not playing because of chronic back issues.
Among position players, the Bears must replace about half of their offensive output. Leading the way are junior center fielder Taylor Lewis (.369 batting average, 13 triples and 21 stolen bases last year) and senior first baseman and co-captain Joey Martin of Portland.
Other returnees include sophomore catcher Tyler Patzalek, who had a shoulder injury last year and was mostly the designated hitter, DHs and brothers Ian Leisenheimer and Justin Leisenheimer, and sophomore outfielder Pat Thibodeau of Caribou.
UMaine hopes to welcome back sophomore shortstop Michael Fransoso, who underwent hip surgery in January but is reportedly ahead of schedule on his recovery.
“The chemistry is great,” Lewis said. “Kids are being unselfish, doing whatever they can to help the team. It’s amazing that everyone kind of has that mentality.”
The Bears will lean on several freshmen at key spots. With Fransoso sidelined, freshman Mike Connolly is at short, while freshmen Eric White of Brewer and Troy Black will split time at second base.
Highly touted Canadian Alex Calbick has earned the starting job at third base and is expected to make an immediate impact.
In the outfield, UMaine has flexibility with speedy freshman Colin Gay and sophomore Robbie Trask of Saco, two righthanded hitters, vying with lefthanded-hitting Whitten and Thibodeau for time in right and left.
“I think we have a good mix of young and old,” Martin said. “You always want to have youth coming in, because that helps build the program, but you also want to have good, veteran leadership.”
Freshman catcher Matt Verrier of Norway will back up Patzalek, while Justin Leisenheimer will play first if Martin goes to the outfield.
UMaine’s returnees have been pleased with the attitude and work ethic shown by the freshmen.
“I’ve really been impressed with our freshmen,” Gibbs said. “They came in and it was almost like they knew exactly what to do. They’ve just been awesome so far.”
Trimper said the experience in the top part of the Bears’ batting order should help ease the transition to Division I for some of the newcomers.
One of Trimper’s goals this season was to motivate his players and try to encourage them to take an unselfish, team-oriented approach. One of the incentives in that effort was the issuance of camouflage warmup jerseys in hues of blue, black, gray and white.
Trimper tried to create a dynamic by which the players could show their competitive desire and confidence by asking to wear the jerseys in certain situations.
“They wanted to show their swagger,” said Trimper, who issues the camo shirts on a limited basis, and only by request.
“It just shows the attitudes and the focus, that these guys are getting after it,” he added.
The Bears on Friday open a four-game series at UNLV. Their home debut is scheduled for April 1 against Bryant.
Optimism abounds as time for the first pitch draws closer.
“Right now, we’ve got 30 individuals that have no egos,” Trimper said. “They want to win America East and they want to go to (NCAA) Regional play because they know we’re talented enough to do it.”