ORONO, Maine — Jonathan Balentina left his native Curacao to attend the University of Maine in the hope of furthering his baseball career.
However, UMaine’s highly regarded school of engineering also provided him with the kind of challenging educational experience he sought in his chosen field.
The fifth-year pitcher is making the best of his opportunities in both areas as he closes out his athletic career for the Black Bears. Balentina and twin brothers Justin and Ian Leisenheimer are the three senior captains who will play at Mahaney Diamond for the last time as UMaine hosts a four-game America East series against league-leading Stony Brook.
Friday’s doubleheader starts at 3 p.m. and the teams play a 1 p.m. twinbill Saturday on Senior Day. Friday’s games will be followed by a fireworks display.
“It’s going to be pretty emotional,” said Balentina. “We’ve given four to five years of our lives to this university and we’ve always tried to do our best and give it our all.”
Balentina has given everything he has this spring for the Bears, albeit in a reduced role. The 6-foot-3 lefthander has a 3-0 record and a 5.48 earned run average in 12 games.
The young man taking the mound now bears little resemblance to the hard-throwing pitcher who began the season. During the spring trip to Florida, he tore a ligament in his pitching elbow again.
It was the same injury he had surgically repaired through Tommy John reconstructive surgery in 2009, forcing him to sit out the 2010 campaign.
“It’s pretty rare that you reinjure that,” said Balentina, who weighed his options after getting the diagnosis.
“Ultimately, I chose to try and help out as much as I can and figure out a way to eat up a couple innings and help out the pitching staff,” he said.
What Balentina did was drastically alter his pitching delivery from overhand to a “submarine” or almost underhand style. The change has allowed him to pitch with only minor pain and discomfort.
He has pitched several times during the transformation and has been effective. Opponents are batting only .205 against him.
“It’s coming along pretty well. I’ve worked at it extensively,” he said.
Balentina wasn’t about to sit around and watch his final season from the sidelines.
UMaine head coach Steve Trimper said Balentina’s competitiveness and resolve never have been in question.
“It just shows the determination that he has,” Trimper said. “He’s driven in whatever he does. He has a competitive side to him.”
Balentina’s best season on the mound came as a sophomore in 2009 when he logged a 3-0 record with one save and a 3.88 ERA. He added three wins and a save in 2011 to help UMaine win the America East championship and reach the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional.
Balentina has spent his fifth year at UMaine working on a master’s degree in structural engineering, which he will complete in 2013. A year ago, he earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, sporting a 3.61 grade point average.
“You’ve got to be committed to your studies,” said Balentina, who is fluent in English, Dutch, Spanish and Papiamento, the Creole language of Curacao and Aruba. He also speaks some French.
“It’s not like we’re 24-7 on baseball, although it seems like that,” Balentina said with a laugh. “You do have some down time and if you use it wisely, you can juggle it pretty well.”
Trimper said Balentina has demonstrated numerous qualities, on the field and in the classroom, that will make him a valuable commodity in the business world when he leaves UMaine.
“He’s a very bright individual, a good kid who’s going to be successful no matter what he does,” Trimper said. “Some of the setbacks and adversity he’s had in his career are going to make him a little bit stronger as a person.”
As far as baseball, Balentina would like to stay involved in the game, but that would involve another elbow surgery.
He hopes to work in the United States for a while after earning his second degree and said he enjoys sharing his baseball knowledge with younger teammates in the hope they can continue the program’s winning tradition.
With the league tournament looming, Balentina said UMaine’s goals against Stony Brook will focus on establishing some momentum.
“You’ve just got to get hot at the right moment,” he said. “We’ve had some glimpses of that and the game against Boston College, hopefully, is going to be a good catalyst for us.”