ORONO, Maine — In America East baseball, it all comes down to winning the conference tournament.
For the teams that don’t, the NCAA tournament is out of the question and the season is over.
The University of Maine baseball team emerged from the losers’ bracket to reach Sunday’s league championship game but dropped a 4-0 decision to Binghamton University.
It was a disappointing finish for coach Steve Trimper’s Black Bears (37-22), who were the only UMaine team to have a win-loss record above .500 during 2012-13.
The ballclub built its regular-season success around a group of veterans led by four-year starter and AE Player of the Year Mike Fransoso and fifth-year senior pitcher A.J. Bazdanes. They were supported by three-year starters Troy Black, Alex Calbick and Colin Gay and fellow juniors Mike Connolly, Eric White and Tommy Lawrence, who enjoyed breakout seasons, as did sophomores Brian Doran and Sam Balzano.
The experience and resolve of that nucleus set the tone for UMaine’s 20-9 league record and the Bears won at least two games in nine of 10 conference three-game series.
However, they came up short in the tournament, where one subpar start and two lackluster offensive performances ultimately led to their ouster. UMaine scored three runs or fewer in three of its five postseason games.
The unavailability of junior righty Shaun Coughlin because of a shoulder ailment that surfaced before the tournament also was a blow to the Bears’ mound experience and depth. As a result, Connolly (15 innings, 215 pitches) and Lawrence (14 1/3 innings, 223 pitches) each started two games.
UMaine rolled out one of its most dominating starting rotations in recent years. The staff, which registered a 3.63 team earned run average, was headed by Lawrence, a transfer from Winthrop University.
The right-hander (11-3, 2.32 ERA) set a school single-season record for wins, including two in the AE tourney. He was named the league pitcher of the year.
Righties Connolly and Bazdanes also were outstanding. Connolly, an All-AE first-team pick at catcher, was 6-4 on the mound with a league-best 2.11 ERA and earned a second-team nod there.
Bazdanes (6-6, 3.47) returned after missing 2012 because of Tommy John elbow surgery and was a key contributor.
However, that group’s propensity for going deep in games, a league schedule that featured only three weekend games, and a large corps of freshmen in the mix meant the Bears didn’t establish a consistent group of relievers or a dependable closer.
Freshman Jake Marks (4-0, 3.16) was a bright spot while Coughlin (2-1, 3.20) and D.J. Voisine (2-1, 3.56) both battled back after offseason surgery.
Logan Fullmer (2-3, 5.62) was fourth on the team with 40 innings pitched and joined fellow freshmen Burk FitzPatrick (0-0, 3.74) and Charlie Butler (0-0, 2.79) in showing promise. Sophomore Luke Morrill of South Thomaston (2-1, 5.12) also contributed.
UMaine also led America East statistically in batting. The Bears posted a .305 batting average and scored 6.1 runs per game.
The offense was spearheaded by the tandem of second-team second baseman Black (1 home run, 24 runs batted in, 13 stolen bases) and conference player of the year Fransoso (4 HR, 49 RBIs, 20 SB), who ranked Nos. 2 and 3 in batting at .363 and .352, respectively.
White (.347, team-high 6 HR, 37 RBIs) surged in his first year as a full-time starter en route to all-league first-team honors at third base. Outfielders Doran (.312, 1 HR, 23 RBI) and Balzano (.299, 21 RBI, team-best 21 SB) also came into their own in starting roles and gained second-team recognition.
Calbick (.280, 2 HR, 33 RBIs) was solid after making the move from third base to first and junior outfielder Colin Gay finished at .259 (2 HR, 26 RBIs, 18 SB).
The Bears also received contributions from backups in freshman infielder Shane Bussey (.340, 1 HR, 12 RBIs) and junior designated hitter Fran Whitten (.297, 3 HR, 20 RBIs), junior DH/catcher Fran Whitten (.297, 3 HR, 20 RBIs), sophomore outfielder Scott Heath of Westbrook (.279, 1 HR, 25 RBIs), freshman catcher Jonathan Salcedo (.234, 4 RBIs) and sophomore outfielder Nick Bernardo (.333, 5 RBIs).
As the Bears look toward next season, one key challenge is replacing Fransoso, especially defensively, at short. The leading candidate is Bussey, who appeared in 20 games.
Two huge question marks are Lawrence and Connolly, both of whom could be drafted. If they sign and forego their last year of eligibility, UMaine would then have to replace its top three starting pitchers (a combined 23 wins), along with its strong-armed catcher.
That would put pressure on the likes of Coughlin, Marks, Fullmer, FitzPatrick and Butler to elevate their performance and step into more prominent roles.
However, UMaine could again challenge for AE supremacy in 2014 with an experienced lineup headed by returning senior positional starters in Connolly, Black, White, Calbick and Gay and juniors Balzano and Doran.
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