ORONO, Maine — When he pitched at Thornton Academy, Jeff Gelinas of Saco would occasionally throw what he termed a “please go over the plate” curveball.
“If I threw two of them for strikes in a game, it was a win,” Gelinas, the University of Maine’s senior closer, said.
Now the curveball is one of Gelinas’ featured pitches. Veteran Bellingham (Washington) Bells pitching coach and multiple Hall-of-Famer Jim Clem worked with him last summer on refining his breaking ball.
The Bells play in the West Coast League, a collegiate wooden-bat summer circuit.
Gelinas’ overhand curve has been a vital component in a memorable season which has seen him post a 1.04 earned run average and registered six saves, the most by a Black Bears reliever since 2005 when Scott Robinson — the school career saves co-leader with 19 — posted nine saves.
He also throws a four-seam fastball that can reach the low 90s (mph).
Gelinas has made 17 appearances, all in relief, and he has struck out 22 in 17⅓ innings. He has allowed 14 hits and opponents are hitting just. .219 against him. He has walked 17, including four each in two outings.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound right-hander said Clem helped him with the release point on his curve.
“I pitch a lot more off my breaking ball than I’ve done in the past,” Gelinas explained. “My breaking ball is a lot more effective than it used to be.”
He explained he relied upon it early in the summer when he had a “dead arm” and had lost velocity on his fastball. By the time his velocity returned, he had gained confidence in his curve.
“His curveball is nasty,” UMaine sophomore Colin Ridley said. “Some guys throw curveballs that are loopy. His looks like it drops off a table.”
Gelinas was a starting pitcher in high school, when he also played first base and third base. He pitched and played the infield at the beginning of his freshman year at UMaine but became a full-time pitcher.
He landed a spot on the America East All-Rookie Team after compiling a 3-4 record and a 3.86 ERA in 2014.
Gelinas was used as a starter and a reliever his sophomore year but was dealing with an ulnar collateral ligament problem in his elbow. He struggled (3-1, 5.51 ERA, 43 hits and 23 walks in 32⅔ innings.
“I could have had Tommy John surgery but, instead, I went home and rehabbed it and I’m glad I did. I couldn’t have stood sitting out and watching a full year of baseball,” he said.
Last season, he was 0-2 with a 9.15 ERA and pitched only 20⅔ innings. He allowed 34 hits and opponents hit .378 against him.
“I would get opportunities and shoot myself in the foot,” Gelinas said. “So then maybe they wouldn’t go back to use me in that same situation the next time. It’s a lot easier to get your mind ready when you expect to pitch every day than it is when you don’t pitch for two weeks.”
Clem also stressed to Gelinas the importance of throwing strikes when you’re a reliever.
Gelinas also did some soul searching.
“I realized that my baseball career was likely to be over in a year and sitting on the bench watching 56 games wasn’t how I wanted to go out,” Gelinas said.
Last fall, head coach Steve Trimper asked him to work on being a closer, another career turn.
“I never pictured myself as a closer. But I was willing to do anything in order to play and help the team win. I loved (closing) ever since I started it, honestly,” Gelinas said.
When Trimper left to become the head coach at Stetson University, assistant Nick Derba took over as the interim head coach. Gelinas said the team’s mentality changed in a positive way.
Derba told Gelinas he would be the closer in the spring after 2016 closer Nick Silva was moved into the starting rotation after an injury to John Arel.
“This role definitely fits me,” Gelinas said. “I’m more of a one-time-through-the-lineup kind of guy with my fastball and breaking ball. I love pitching in important games.”
He now has the confidence to go after hitters aggressively.
“You have to throw every pitch with maximum intent. … You expect to get an out with every pitch,” Gelinas said.
“His breaking ball has a lot of bite, and he’ll throw it in any count,” junior catcher Jonathan Bennett said. “And his fastball has some movement and will sneak up on you especially with that good breaking ball he has.”
Gelinas got a big shot of confidence on the Florida trip in March when he pitched in three consecutive games and picked up two saves and a hold.
“I had never pitched on three consecutive days in my life. After that, I said ‘OK, I can do this,’” Gelinas said.
“He has learned who he is as a pitcher. He has reinvented himself,” Derba said. “He is taking the game a little more seriously. He is in a different role now, and he has a certain demeanor when he steps onto the field that he didn’t have last year.”
Gelinas’ teammates say his improved confidence is noticeable.
“He’s able to throw every pitch over the plate, and he’s getting better every single day,” senior Tyler Schwanz said.
Gelinas will appear in his final games at Mahaney Diamond this weekend when UMaine hosts Albany for a three-game series in preparation for next week’s America East tournament at Lowell, Massachusetts.
“Obviously, things haven’t always gone my way, but I wouldn’t change anything because it helped me get where I am right now,” Gelinas said.
“Nobody will want to play us (in the tournament),” Gelinas said of UMaine, which has won four of its last five AE games.