ORONO, Maine — It may have been a nonconference weekend for the University of Maine baseball team, but that didn’t keep the Black Bears from moving up in the America East standings.
UMaine (17-23), which took three of four games from Division I independent New York Institute of Technology at Mahaney Diamond, remains very much in the playoff picture.
The Black Bears received a little help from some conference counterparts as UMass Lowell swept Maryland Baltimore County, and Stony Brook took three games from Albany. That lifted UMaine back into fifth place in the seven-team league.
However, because Division I newcomer UMass Lowell (16-15, 8-6 AE) is not eligible for the America East tournament, coach Steve Trimper’s team is effectively fourth with a 5-7 conference record.
The top four teams advance to the America East Baseball Championship, scheduled for May 22-24 at LeLacheur Park in Lowell, Mass.
“We got a little help, but we control our own destiny,” Trimper said after Sunday’s disappointing 3-2 loss to NYIT.
“We’re going to try to get ready for Stony Brook and then get ready for our two home weekends,” Trimper added.
The Black Bears play Division III University of Maine-Presque Isle at home 5 p.m. Tuesday, then visit Manhattan College on Thursday en route to Long Island for a three-game set with the Seawolves on Saturday and Sunday at Joe Nathan Field.
Stony Brook (24-14, 10-3 AE) swept Albany and slipped past Hartford into the top spot on Sunday after the Hawks (24-16, 10-4 AE) dropped two of three to third-place Binghamton (16-20, 8-9 AE).
UMBC (13-21, 6-9 AE) is close behind UMaine, while Albany (7-24, 4-12 AE) is last.
At .417, UMaine is only .054 percentage points behind Binghamton and leads UMBC (.400) by a slim .017 margin.
Albany could well become the first team to be eliminated from contention. The Great Danes have only six conference games left, including a three-game set May 10-11 in Orono.
“We know what we’ve got to do to go out there and earn a spot in the tournament,” said junior Scott Heath of Westbrook. “We all want it, and it’s just a matter of going out there and playing to our capabilities.
“That’s one thing we haven’t done much this year, but we know we can do it, that’s what we’re focused on,” he added. “We’re going to work our butts off and do what we can.”
The Black Bears have been walking a bit of a tightrope this season.
The team’s offensive production is down significantly from 2013, and UMaine does not feature much proven depth on its pitching staff.
The Bears average 4.27 runs per game, 1.78 fewer than last season. The team batting average of .271 is 34 points lower, its slugging percentage has dropped 62 points to .348, and its on-base percentage has dipped 38 points to .340.
Trimper conceded his team is operating with a small margin for error in all facets of the game.
“We have to be perfect on the bunts, we have to be perfect on the hit-and-runs, we have to get a two-out RBI,” he said.
Pitching-wise, UMaine’s team earned run average is 4.37. It was 3.63 a year ago.
“We’ve been up and down a little bit,” said sophomore right-hander Charlie Butler, who leads the staff with 18 appearances, all in relief.
“All the games have been close, but the little things have turned into big things,” he said of mistakes and missed opportunities.
Trimper said this year’s ballclub has lacked a proven star who is capable of providing clutch hits, timely defensive plays and leadership on a daily basis.
He pointed to departed players such as Mike Fransoso, Taylor Lewis, Curt Smith and Ryan Quintal as examples of such standouts.
“We have a cast of good players, supporting characters,” Trimper said. “We’ve got to have a guy that comes up and has that presence on our team.”
In the meantime, the Black Bears need steady play and pitching across the board if the team hopes to challenge for the conference title.