ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine baseball team is closing in on the halfway point of its America East Conference season.
And despite dropping both games in a rain-shortened weekend series at Binghamton, the Black Bears remain very much in the hunt for the league regular-season title.
UMaine (21-16) plays a nonconference game Wednesday at Massachusetts before returning to Orono for a three-game America East set against Albany on Saturday and Sunday at Mahaney Diamond.
Coach Steve Trimper’s Bears, who opened conference play with seven games against the bottom two teams in the league, must now try to keep pace with first-place Stony Brook (29-10, 9-2 AE) and Binghamton (15-16, 6-2 AE).
“We put ourselves in a position where we control our own destiny for seeding in the tournament,” Trimper said. “We’ve got to take care of business, which is win our home series and then go on the road to Albany and Hartford and try to do a good job, and things will fall into place.”
UMaine, which had its 14-game winning streak snapped Sunday, faced some better pitching at Binghamton. The Bears were shut out by Mike Augliera, then could manufacture only one run against Jake Lambert.
The lack of offense against Binghamton (.140 team batting average) was disappointing, but junior shortstop Mike Fransoso said the players won’t allow one subpar day to ruin their confidence.
“We’re not going to change anything,” Fransoso said. “The bats just didn’t come alive. We’ve just got to get back on track and play the way we’ve been playing.”
On offense, UMaine has been able to take advantage when its opponents provide extra baserunners through walks, errors or hit batsmen. Still, Trimper said the Bears have to be more productive at the plate against higher caliber pitching.
“When teams give us a little bit, we’ve been doing a good job of capitalizing,” Trimper said. “We have to do a better job of creating our own offense.”
The Bears are averaging 11.2 runs and 12.2 hits per game while batting .348 in America East play, which includes a 76-run outburst in the series at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Junior catcher Tyler Patzalek leads UMaine in conference games with a .438 batting average and 14 runs batted in. Freshman Scott Heath of Westbrook, who is out with a shoulder injury, checks in at .423 with six RBI, while senior left fielder Ian Leisenheimer (.375, 14 RBI) and twin brother Justin Leisenheimer (.364, 7 RBI) also have been steady.
The pitching staff has struggled a bit to develop overall consistency and is striving to establish better depth. Junior Steve Perakslis (4-3 overall, 3.59 earned run average) had difficulty at Binghamton, while sophomore Shaun Coughlin (3-3, 3.70) was good in defeat. Junior Jeff Gibbs (2-4, 9.00) and sophomores Mike Connolly (3-3, 5.09) and D.J. Voisine (3-0, 4.22) have been among the other mainstays.
“The fortunate thing is, we have the three-game series for the next three weeks, which is a lot easier to manage than the four-game series,” Trimper said.
He said getting Gibbs back on track is an important dynamic as the Bears gear up for the postseason.
“He’s the one guy that when he is pitching to his capabilities, he can beat any of the teams in the conference and match up against anybody else’s No. 1,” Trimper said.
UMaine has continued to play outstanding defense, committing only seven errors in nine league games for a .977 fielding percentage. The Bears also have turned eight double plays.
“Right now, I’d say our defense is our strong point,” Trimper said.
UMaine plays back-to-back three-game sets against Albany before heading to Hartford May 12-13.
“It’s not common that you play a team back to back [weekends],” Fransoso said. “We’ve just got to go in and play our game. We can’t take them lightly. They always put up a good fight against us.”