ORONO, Maine — As far as the University of Maine baseball team is concerned, the 2014 America East Baseball Championship is a toss-up.
The Black Bears will have the chance to stake their claim to the conference title later this week during the four-team, double-elimination tournament at LeLacheur Park in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Coach Steve Trimper’s UMaine ballclub (24-27) is the No. 4 seed with a league record of 10-11 and opens the tournament at 2 p.m. Thursday against top seed Stony Brook (33-16, 18-5). The Bears are making their fifth straight postseason appearance.
Second-seeded Hartford (30-21, 16-7 AE) faces the defending champion, No. 3 Binghamton (21-24, 11-12 AE), in Thursday’s 6 p.m. contest.
The winners square off in Friday’s 2 p.m. game, while Thursday’s losers draw the 6 p.m. elimination game.
Trimper believes the field is the most balanced he has seen in the postseason during his coaching career.
“It’s going to come down to the little things, everything you work on all year, with the bunts, the hit-and-runs, the clean defense, throwing guys out, holding runners on,” he said. “We’ve got to go down and play our best.”
UMaine won four of its last five games and five of the last seven to close out the regular season. The players are confident they are peaking at the right time and have the potential to win the tournament.
“All eyes on the tournament right now. We’re ready to tear it up,” senior center fielder and co-captain Colin Gay said after Sunday’s 12-inning loss to Maryland Baltimore County, the outcome of which did not dampen the Black Bears’ enthusiasm.
UMaine, which in America East games ranks fifth in team batting (.259), fourth in pitching (3.46 earned run average) and second in defense (.983 fielding percentage), has solid upperclass experience.
“I think we’re as ready as we’ll ever be,” said senior co-captain and shortstop Troy Black. “We’re playing the best baseball that we’ve played all year the past two weeks or so, so I think that we’re all really excited just to get down there.”
Stony Brook won two of three regular-season meetings May 3-4 against UMaine on Long Island. Bears senior ace Tommy Lawrence outdueled Seawolves’ likely Game 1 starter Frankie Vanderka 2-1 in the opener, before Stony Brook responded to win 11-3 and 4-1.
Lawrence is 6-0 with a 1.99 earned run average and 46 strikeouts in 58⅔ in conference games, while Vanderka is 2-3 with a 2.52 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 39⅓ innings.
Cole Peragine is the leading hitter in league play at .392 with 20 runs batted in, while Kevin Krause (.354, 24 RBI) and Kevin Courtney (.349, 14 RBI) also are in the top 10.
UMaine’s top batters in America East action are junior Scott Heath of Westbrook (.364, 3 home runs, 18 RBI) and senior second baseman Alex Calbick (.308, 3 HR, 8 RBI).
The tournament appearance will mark UMaine’s third visit in the last year to LeLacheur Park, which is the home field of the Lowell Spinners, a short-season Class A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.
The Bears are 6-1 at Lowell, going 3-1 in the 2013 championship and sweeping a three-game series against the UMass Lowell River Hawks in April.
LeLacheur Park was chosen as the tournament site in 2013, marking the first time the league had utilized a predetermined minor-league ballpark since 2001. There were some weather problems a year ago.
In January, the conference announced that it had negotiated to hold the tournament at the facility for the next four seasons, through 2017.
“Committing to LeLacheur Park for the next four years continues to build the brand of America East baseball and enhances the experience for our student-athletes,” America East Commissioner Amy Huchthausen said in a press release announcing the extension. “LeLacheur Park is a first-class minor league facility that produced a great atmosphere for our teams and fans in 2013.”
Huchthausen also cited the location as a key consideration. Four schools are within about a four-hour drive, with Maryland Baltimore County (seven hours) and Binghamton (five hours) potentially facing the longest trips.
UMass Lowell is not eligible for the America East tournament until 2018.