ORONO — Walking past Mahaney Diamond on Friday afternoon, the casual observer might not have noticed anything out of the ordinary.
At second glance, the scene might have appeared down-right bizarre.
The University of Maine baseball team was hustling around the FieldTurf, fielding ground balls, uncorking throws and making catches. The only thing missing was baseballs.
Coach Steve Trimper put his club through a session of “invisible infield” to begin Friday’s practice, providing plenty of laughter and enthusiasm as the Black Bears tuned up for their four-game weekend series against the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Trimper, who said he uses the tactic once every few years, hit phantom grounders and fly balls from the middle of the diamond. He said the session was designed as something fun to start practice.
The mood was indicative of the camaraderie the team has displayed.
“It’s been great to play with these guys, because they’re playing loose, having fun out there,” said junior outfielder Taylor Lewis. “When it needs to get serious, that’s when we can turn on the switch.”
The Bears also were sporting their camouflage warmup shirts, which feature a distinctive pattern of blues, blacks, grays and white. The players must receive permission to wear the shirts.
“It’s got to be the right day for it, a nice day or more of a laid-back day,” said senior co-captain Joey Martin of Portland. “The whole team has to wear it, not just a couple guys.”
UMaine (15-21) continues to strive for improvement and consistency at the plate and on the mound. Upon completion of Saturday’s 1 p.m. doubleheader, the Bears will have reached the halfway mark of their America East schedule.
UMaine begins the weekend in fourth place in the conference standings with a 5-5 record. The Bears are one game behind third-place Albany (6-4), three back of second-place Binghamton (8-2) and four behind league leader Stony Brook (9-1).
“We just want to win series,” Trimper said. “We have three of the next four series at home, but if we can win this series here, (then) go on the road and try to win a series, pretty much at that point it will be over.”
Four of the six America East teams qualify for the league tournament, a double-elimination event that begins May 25 on the home field of the regular-season champion.
The Bears have excelled on defense, despite starting a handful of regulars. They boast a .989 fielding percentage in league play, with only four errors in 358 chances.
“Our defense has been outstanding,” Trimper said.
UMaine continues to seek more consistency at the plate and on the mound. The Bears are batting only .263 in 10 AE games while averaging 3.8 runs per contest.
The pitching has been occasionally outstanding and sometimes erratic.
“Obviously, we’ve had our ups and downs, but with four weekends left, I’m pretty happy with where we are,” Martin said. “I think moving forward we have a good chance of getting in the tournament and once you’re in the tournament you can make some noise.”
UMaine’s 3.95 earned run average is solid, but it has issued a conference-high 41 walks despite allowing only 66 hits in 84 1/3 innings.
“If we don’t walk guys and we don’t hit guys, we win baseball games, bottom line,” Trimper said.
Ultimately, it comes down to executing in key situations, whether with locating pitches, getting hits with runners in scoring position or avoiding running into outs.
“It’s just little things here and there,” Lewis said, “things like baserunning that you don’t think mean a lot to the game, but in the end they really do.”