ORONO, Maine — There was never any question whether Tommy Lawrence was good enough to pitch at the Division I level.
For the right-hander from West Haven, Conn., it was more a matter of finding the right role. Lawrence has found the perfect fit at the University of Maine.
The junior transfer has established himself as the Black Bears’ No. 1 starter this season. He’ll take the mound Saturday at 1 p.m. at Mahaney Diamond when UMaine plays its home opener to kick off a three-game America East series against Albany.
“Last year was the worst sitting out, not being able to play,” Lawrence said. “This year, I knew I needed to do something.”
After transferring from Winthrop University in South Carolina, Lawrence has flourished. He owns a 3-2 record with a 2.28 earned run average and a team-leading 33 strikeouts in 43⅓ innings.
Opponents are batting only .256 against him.
His 2013 efforts include seven innings of two-run ball in a no-decision at Auburn, an eight-inning, one-run stint in a win at Stetson, a nine-inning shutout March 16 at Stony Brook and eight innings of one-hit ball last Saturday at Hartford.
“He throws 90 miles per hour but what makes him so effective is he uses the inside part of the plate so well,” said UMaine head coach Steve Trimper. “The other hidden ingredient is he really knows how to lock in and focus and get out of jams.”
Lawrence’s coaches at Winthrop recognized those qualities and used him as a reliever. In two seasons (2010-11), he made 43 appearances and posted a 3-8 record with five saves and a 6.35 ERA.
However, Lawrence is a creature of habit. He said the unpredictability of pitching out of the bullpen made it impossible for him to establish the kind of routine he needs to help him be at his best, physically and mentally.
When it became clear Winthrop wouldn’t use him as a starter, Lawrence decided to transfer.
“I feel like I pitch better the more pitches I throw during a game and the more I work on it during the week,” Lawrence said. “I have a certain routine I like to do and it’s better when you know you’re going to pitch.”
The timing of Lawrence’s arrival at UMaine was fortuitous. Last spring, the Black Bears lost two of their top starters, Jeff Gibbs and Steve Perakslis, to the major league draft and graduated senior Jon Balentina.
Lawrence has seized the opportunity. He has consistently thrown three pitches for strikes, working off his fastball and slider but also mixing in a curveball, a cut fastball and a changeup.
“He has very good depth on his slider and the key for him is he’s able to throw it for strikes in pretty much any count,” said UMaine assistant coach Jason Spaulding, who praised Lawrence for his knowledge of the game and attention to detail.
Lawrence admits being willing to pitch inside, which can tie up batters but also poses some risks.
“I’ve hit 10 batters already this year, so I come inside a decent amount,” he said with a smile.
Lawrence exhibits what Trimper referred to as a bulldog mentality on the mound.
“If he gets in a jam, he gets himself out of it,” Trimper said. “He’s a big-game pitcher.”
Junior center fielder Colin Gay marvels at Lawrence’s ability to balance his weekday sense of humor with his game-day competitive fire.
“He’s the funniest guy on the team, but when it’s game time, you know it’s game time,” Gay said. “He’s great mentally. He knows how to fight and when he pitches, everyone on the team gets that same mentality.”
Since leaving Winthrop in 2011, Lawrence has continued to develop. It began with a stint with the Sanford Mainers of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, where he played for former UMaine star and assistant coach Aaron Izaryk.
“I used to try to throw it by everybody, but then I realized you can’t do it in college baseball,” Lawrence said of his take-away from that season.
Last summer, he had the opportunity to play in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League, a wooden-bat league that includes many of the country’s best college players.
In 10 appearances, including five starts, with the Chatham Anglers, Lawrence went 2-1 with a 3.55 ERA. He gave up 42 hits, struck out 35 and walked seven in 38 innings.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he admitted. “I went there as a temp [temporary contract] and I ended up pitching pretty good. I was able to build my confidence up.”
That has carried over into this season. Lawrence said he is fortunate to have an outstanding defense behind him, which enables him to pitch without worrying about allowing opposing hitters to make contact.
Spaulding pointed out that Lawrence has been an excellent influence on a Black Bears pitching staff that includes seven freshmen.
“He’s come in from Day 1 and really been as hardworking a kid as you could possibly be,” Spaulding said, “whether it be conditioning or lifting or practice-wise.
“He’s a good leader,” he added. “He has a very strict routine he follows during the week, so it’s good for the young guys to see the effort.”