Unrealized pitching potential, inconsistent hitting prevent UMaine from defending America East title
ORONO, Maine — With an America East championship in its back pocket and an NCAA Regional appearance to its credit, the 2012 University of Maine baseball team had hoped to at least match those accomplishments this season.
The Black Bears were unable to rediscover the magic.
Coach Steve Trimper’s ballclub experienced a bit of a roller coaster ride through the recently completed season, which ended Friday with a 13-6 loss to Stony Brook in the championship round of the America East tournament on Long Island.
UMaine finished with a 28-28 record that reflected its potential but demonstrated its pitching struggles and overall lack of offensive consistency.
The Bears’ biggest deficiency was on the mound, where they could not establish a stopper in the mold of 2011 ace Keith Bilodeau.
Promising junior Jeff Gibbs (3-4, 8.40 earned run average) failed to assert himself and struggled much of the season. Sophomore Shaun Coughlin (4-5, 3.98, 2 saves) emerged as a dependable starter and earned All-America East first-team honors, while classmate Steve Perakslis (5-5, 3.81) was steady and a second-team pick.
Early injuries thinned the staff, which finished with a 5.58 team and allowed opponents to bat .289. Junior A.J. Bazdanes underwent Tommy John elbow surgery early in March and senior Jon Balentina (3-2, 7.06) re-injured his left elbow, forcing a switch to a sidearm/submarine style and a reduced role.
Freshman Luke Morrill of South Thomaston (1-1, 5.91) was poised to emerge, but was shut down with a season-ending arm injury.
Sophomore Mike Connolly (5-6, 5.40, 3 sv.) returned to the mound and made significant contributions, while classmate D.J. Voisine (4-0, 3.98, 2 sv.) was a steady performer and sophomore Fran Whitten (2-4, 7.67) provided support.
The pitching staff reduced its walks by nearly one per game over 2011, but also had fewer strikeouts. Opponents hit 50 points higher (.289) against the Bears this season.
With its frontline veterans underachieving or injured, UMaine was unable to establish enough quality and depth to contend with the likes of Stony Brook.
The Bears had a 24-8 record in games during which they allowed five runs or fewer, but went 4-20 when they surrendered six runs or more.
The offense was slightly more productive, but it was not enough to offset the slip in pitching. UMaine batted .290 and averaged 6.3 runs per outing.
Sophomore second baseman Troy Black led the way with a .338 average (21 runs batted in, 17 stolen bases), but junior shortstop Mike Fransoso (.327, 5 HR, 26 RBI, 19 SB), an AE first-teamer, was the only other regular above .500. Sophomore center-fielder Colin Gay (.299-1-28, 14 SB) emerged as a dependable starter amidst a group of regulars that included senior left-fielder Ian Leisenheimer (.299-2-32), designated hitter Whitten (.290-3-32), sophomore third baseman Alex Calbick (.287-5-43) and junior catcher Tyler Patzalek (.286-3-35), who was a second-team, all-conference choice.
Freshman outfielder Scott Heath of Westbrook (.293-2-22) demonstrated Division I ability and gained AE All-Rookie honors, while senior first baseman Justin Leisenheimer (.259-5-28) had a good final season. The Bears stole 70 bases in 94 attempts.
However, UMaine’s offensive outbursts didn’t always coincide with days when the pitching was subpar. Inconsistency in both areas helped contribute to the Bears’ 2-8 record in one-run games.
This team rattled off 14 consecutive victories at one point against some lower-tier teams, then closed out the season by going 7-14, mostly against the upper echelon of America East squads.
UMaine was an outstanding defensive ballclub with a .967 fielding percentage. Fransoso and Black again provided a slick double-play combination, with Fransoso overcoming some early season throwing miscues to demonstrate superior range and playmaking ability.
Calbick and Justin Leisenheimer were strong presences on the corners, while Patzalek was a workhorse behind the plate who gunned out 22 of 48 would-be base stealers. Gay showed plenty of speed to head up the outfield corps.
Freshmen Sam Balzano of Portland (.308, 11 RBI) and Brian Doran (.265, 9 RBI) showed potential as future outfield mainstays, but most of the Bears’ other bench players, including sophomore Eric White of Brewer, were used sparingly.
With only three senior regulars departing, UMaine’s prospects for 2013 would appear good, although the potential loss of Gibbs, Perakslis and Fransoso in the major league draft could create some key voids.
Heath is expected to step in at first base and contribute to the pitching staff, while Balzano and Doran should join Gay in the outfield rotation. The pitching staff will receive an infusion of talent that includes junior transfer Tommy Lawrence, along with highly regarded freshmen Dayton Dawe and Logan Fullmer.
The Bears should have enough talent and experience in the lineup next season, but the development of the pitchers will play a critical role in UMaine’s ability to challenge Stony Brook for the America East title.