ORONO, Maine — Luke Morrill’s baseball debut for the University of Maine was nothing like he might have imagined.
Rather than swinging a bat and playing in the infield, the freshman from South Thomaston stepped onto the pitcher’s mound at Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson, S.C.
The nationally ranked Clemson Tigers had the bases loaded with two outs.
“I just ran out from the bullpen, I was ready to go,” Morrill said. “I struck the guy out to end the inning. That was probably the coolest experience of my baseball career so far.”
UMaine head coach Steve Trimper said Morrill’s appearances in Florida on the team’s recent spring trip turned more than a few heads, including those of some major league scouts.
“He can not only throw the ball hard with a good slider, his mound presence is unbelievable,” Trimper said. “This kid is as cool as a cucumber.”
Morrill has had an immediate impact for the Black Bears, who take a 6-11 record into Thursday’s game at Brown.
The 6-foot-4 righthander owns a 1-0 record with a 2.93 earned run average. He is tied for the team lead with seven appearances and has allowed 12 hits and five runs in 15⅓ innings. Morrill has struck out 13 and walked four while holding opponents to a .207 batting average.
Last weekend, he appeared in three games at the Strike Out Cancer Tournament in New Jersey. He gave up two hits and no runs with seven strikeouts and two walks in 5⅔ innings.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say he surprised me,” Trimper said. “Recruiting Luke out of high school, we thought we had a very athletic player but we didn’t really know where he’d fit in.”
Morrill was a star at Rockland District High School, where he struck out 54 batters in 34⅓ innings last season and batted .521 with four home runs.
Morrill has fit in nicely on the mound.
He spent the fall working out mostly as an infielder, but started working more as a pitcher after the team returned after the Christmas break.
“We made some minor changes to his mechanics coming in,” said pitching coach Jason Spaulding. “He’s a big kid, so we wanted to get his lower half more involved.”
He said the changes helped Morrill boost his fastball from 83-85 mph to 88-90 mph, and occasionally higher.
For his part, Morrill has embraced the change of emphasis from being a position player to pitching.
“It’s a new experience,” Morrill said. “I’ve gravitated more toward the pitching now. I just get my mind ready to get on the mound and do my job there.”
Injuries to two pitchers helped open the door for Morrill, Mike Connolly and others to throw more innings.
Morrill, who continues to work on his breaking pitch — which is somewhere between a slider and a curveball — has received rave reviews from his coaches for his work ethic, mound poise and coachability.
“One of the biggest assets that he has is, you never know if he’s pitching well or not pitching well,” Spaulding said. “He just kind of has the same demeanor and rolls pitch by pitch.”
Morrill, who praised Spaulding for helping him make the necessary changes to achieve significant gains, has bought into the coaching staff’s mentality of throwing a lot more strikes and trusting the defense.
He also has embraced the challenges not only of making the transition to Division I ball, but developing more of a pitcher’s mindset. Morrill is glad to be able to contribute.
“It’s fun to get up here and get in the games and try to help us win,” he said.