ORONO, Maine — Two weeks ago, the University of Maine appeared poised to run away with the America East baseball regular-season title.
A sudden widespread offensive slump has since hit the Black Bears, reminding coach Steve Trimper’s ballclub it has some work to do before it can legitimately challenge for the conference championship.
UMaine (25-17, 14-6 AE) will be in first place heading into a three-game weekend series starting Saturday at second-place Albany (20-16-1, 13-8). However, a sweep by the Great Danes would vault them into the top spot.
The Black Bears have lost two in a row and three of their last four coming off Sunday’s 1-0 setback at the hands of Sean Newcomb and Hartford at Mahaney Diamond.
The performance, which included only three hits against the hard-throwing left-hander, marked the second consecutive Sunday on which UMaine has been shut out.
In their last six America East games, the Bears have been held to 11 runs and 32 hits. They are batting .190 (32-for-168) during that stretch.
“It’s continued with our bats. We just haven’t found them the last couple of weekends,” said UMaine senior co-captain Mike Fransoso, who had three of his team’s 13 combined hits against Hartford.
UMaine ranks second behind Albany (.294) in 20 league games with a .277 batting average and has scored 5.3 runs per contest. However, the Bears have scored two runs or fewer in four of their last six contests.
“We’ve got to figure that out, we’ve got to figure it out quick, but I think we will,” Fransoso said, emphasizing that this year’s team has demonstrated the ability to move on after some tough games or stretches.
“We’re a team that’s capable of figuring it out and not letting it trickle down to next weekend,” added Fransoso, who at .333 (7-for-21) has been one of few bright spots at the plate in the last two series.
The Bears will try to heat up the bats Tuesday and Wednesday with 5 p.m. games against the University of Maine-Presque Isle and UMaine-Farmington, respectively, at Mahaney Diamond.
UMaine has faced some of the league’s top pitchers of late, including Frankie Vanderka of Stony Brook and Newcomb. That has further magnified some of the limitations of a Black Bears offense Trimper said wasn’t high-powered in the first place.
“We’re not a poor-hitting team, but we’re not an awesome-hitting team,” Trimper said. “That’s why we have to go into running and bunting and hit-and-running. When those things work, we’ll score three or four runs.”
With scoring opportunities at a premium of late, UMaine has had difficulty coming up with clutch hits that could have provided them with some momentum and changed a few outcomes.
“That’s one thing we need to work on is putting the nail in the coffin and trying to get that clutch hit or that clutch baserunner or that clutch bunt,” said Mike Connolly, who has allowed only one run in his last two starts, covering 18 innings.
The Bears did not score in either of those games.
Connolly has five hits in his last 12 at-bats (.517), but only one other regular has more than three hits in the last six games combined.
Fransoso explained that such a teamwide slump takes its toll both mentally and on a hitter’s approach at the plate.
“We’re getting a little pull happy now and you do that when you’re struggling at the plate,” Fransoso said. “You tend to go out and get the pitch, not let it come to you. When we’re hitting well, we’re spraying the ball all over the field and we haven’t been doing that.”
Trimper said the Bears must get back to their planned offensive approach, which was effective earlier in the season.
“We have to not strike out, put balls in play and try to use our legs to create some type of offense,” he said.
UMaine’s pitching has not faltered, even with the offense struggling.
During the same six-game stretch, Black Bear pitchers have given up only 29 hits and eight earned runs in 50 innings, good for a 1.44 earned run average.
The staff has struck out 36, walked 11 and hit five batters. Starters Connolly, Tommy Lawrence and A.J. Bazdanes have averaged more than eight innings per start, with Bazdanes going only eight innings once and Lawrence 6 1/3 in one of his starts (in a seven-inning game).
Connolly, a junior righty, had his string of consecutive scoreless innings snapped at 16 1/3 when James Alfonso homered in the eighth inning Sunday.
“If we pitch the way we’re capable of and play defense the way we’re capable of, we’re usually in position to win,” Trimper said.