Mike Connolly excels in rare dual role for UMaine baseball team

Posted April 22, 2013, at 7:49 p.m.
UMaine pitcher Mike Connolly throws a pitch against Stony Brook on Sunday at Orono.
UMaine pitcher Mike Connolly throws a pitch against Stony Brook on Sunday at Orono. Buy Photo

ORONO, Maine — Mike Connolly planned to take the ball Sunday afternoon and give his University of Maine teammates a handful of good innings on the mound.

“I was telling the guys, I’m not going past five innings. I’m going to get my work in and pass it on to somebody else,” he said.

Connolly enjoys pitching, but after catching all 16 innings during Saturday’s America East doubleheader sweep of Stony Brook, he hoped to get a quick lead Sunday and call it a day.

“Then the ninth rolls around and I’m like, ‘guys, if you want me back out there, I can do it,’” he said with a laugh. “As the innings progressed I’m like, just get one [run], just get one.”

Instead, the Black Bears were stymied by Seawolves pitchers and did not score in a 1-0, 10-inning loss at Mahaney Diamond.

UMaine’s junior right-hander shut out Stony Brook on four hits through nine innings. He struck out five, walked one and hit a batter, throwing 109 pitches.

“He’s a warrior on the mound and behind the plate,” said Black Bears’ senior co-captain Mike Fransoso. “It’s not something that everybody can do: Catch two games and come out and pitch the third one.”

It’s not something anybody else is doing this season at the Division I level.

Laura Reed, UMaine’s assistant athletic director for media relations, researched the phenomenon. She found Connolly is among 19 Division I players who are regular positional players and also have a spot in their teams’ pitching rotation.

He is the only catcher pulling off the double duty.

“It’s amazing,” said UMaine head coach Steve Trimper. “First and foremost, it’s athleticism. Secondly, it’s mental toughness.”

Connolly, a 6-foot, 175-pounder from Bridgewater, Mass., has excelled in both roles.

In 29 appearances behind the plate, including 27 starts, he is batting a career-best .337 with one home run, 11 runs batted in and two stolen bases. Connolly ranks third in America East games with a .356 average.

Defensively, he owns a .959 fielding percentage and has used his strong, accurate arm to throw out 19 of 37 runners (53 percent) on stolen-base attempts.

On the mound, Connolly has a 4-2 record with one save. He leads the team with a 1.79 earned run average, having allowed 36 hits in 45 1/3 innings with 29 strikeouts and 10 walks.

In league play, his 1.30 ERA ranks third.

Connolly was flexing his right arm and shoulder after Sunday’s game, but he was still smiling. He was ready to kick back and relax after three grueling games in 27 hours.

“It’s tiring. I praise the day I can pitch and be fresh [rested],” Connolly said. “Physically, it definitely takes a toll.”

Trimper said Connolly has been blessed with a resilient “God-given rubber arm.” Connolly explained much of the fatigue and soreness is in his lower body.

“Squatting [weight training] this winter definitely did a lot, but it’s starting to wear off now,” he said. “I’m feeling the wrath of it.”

Trimper, pitching coach Jason Spaulding and UMaine athletic trainer Amy Adamo have to be conscientious in managing Connolly’s health.

“He’s in pretty good shape but we haven’t been starting him [on the mound] all the time simply because we don’t want to beat him up,” said Trimper, who explained the aim is to have Connolly as part of UMaine’s rotation during the America East Baseball Championship.

Prior to Sunday, Connolly had only pitched 6 1/3 innings in the previous three weeks, including two innings in relief March 24 against Binghamton on April 7 and 4 1/3 innings at UMBC on April 14.

Connolly’s post-pitching plan includes plenty of rest. Monday is the team’s NCAA mandatory day off, then he will also sit out Tuesday, which usually involves a nonconference game in the evening. Maine plays Holy Cross at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in Sanford.

“Wednesday, I throw lightly if I feel like it,” Connolly said. “I pretty much take off the whole week of throwing and that’s the only way I’m going to be able to last and be able to do the double duty.”

Connolly came to UMaine in 2010 primarily as a shortstop, but has found other ways to contribute with Fransoso holding down that position. Last season, Connolly made 25 pitching appearances in 2012, going 5-6 with three saves.

However, he also began working out behind the plate, a move that has paid dividends.

Last summer, Connolly earned a spot with the Harwich Mariners of the Cape Cod Baseball League. There, he played in 20 games as catcher and hit .188 with two homers and eight RBIs.

However, he returned to UMaine with some valuable experience and earned the starting job after senior Tyler Patzalek left school for academic reasons.

“Catching, that’s the hardest position on the field, and then he goes to the mound and he calls his own game,” Trimper said. “It’s like having another coach on the field.”

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