LOWELL, Mass. — As early as last fall, coach Steve Trimper had witnessed the transformation.
After two seasons as a utility infielder and relief pitcher, Eric White was ready to break into the starting lineup.
White earned the job at third base during the fall season and has been instrumental in the University of Maine’s drive to the America East baseball regular-season title.
The junior from Brewer continued his torrid hitting Wednesday, driving in four runs in the top-seeded Black Bears’ 7-0 victory over No. 4 Stony Brook in the opening round of the America East Baseball Championship at LeLacheur Park.
White, who on Tuesday was named to the all-conference first team, blasted a three-run home run and a run-scoring single to spearhead the attack. He sees his success, and his power surge, as a matter of confidence.
“I think it’s just being more comfortable at the plate and being confident in my swing, trying to drive balls instead of trying to put balls in play,” said the soft-spoken former Brewer High School star.
White hopes to keep his hot streak going Thursday at 8 p.m. when UMaine faces No. 2 Binghamton in a second-round winners’ bracket game.
“That [home-run pitch] was a hanging breaking ball that he put on a line. It might have got out of here in two seconds,” said UMaine junior Mike Connolly. “He’s a great hitter and he’s finally getting his at-bats and getting in a groove. He’s hot.”
White goes into the contest with a .333 batting average that ranks fifth in the league and third on the ballclub. He is tied for the America East lead with six home runs and has posted 35 runs batted in.
“He’s been an unbelievable story,” Trimper said. “He’s been a part-time player for us for two years. He’s a tough kid, just really grinds it out.”
White’s coming of age took some time. He came into the 2013 season with a .215 career batting average and only 14 RBIs in 56 games.
He made a big push during the offseason and locked down the job at third base. However, he struggled from a statistical standpoint during the first part of the season, in spite of hitting the ball hard.
White was batting .174 (12-for-69) going into UMaine’s first home series against Albany on March 24. Since then, he has gone 47-for-108, a .435 clip. That includes 25 hits in his last 49 at-bats (.510) over a span of 13 games.
“The last few years, he’s kind of been a role player for us,” said Bears senior co-captain Mike Fransoso. “This year he’s stepped up big being an everyday guy. Once he got 50, 60, 70 at-bats under his belt, he felt a lot more comfortable up to the plate.”
White also has been dependable at “the hot corner.” He has committed nine errors in 161 chances, a .944 fielding percentage.
He is fearless in knocking down balls hit at him, probably a testament to his hockey goaltender’s mentality, and has demonstrated a strong throwing arm.
“I think what’s gone unnoticed, he’s obviously smashed the ball around, but he plays great defense,” Trimper said.
Rain, rain go away
The weather dominated much of the talk around UMaine’s Lowell hotel on Thursday as rain continued to fall intermittently.
Wednesday’s 8 p.m. game between Binghamton and Albany was delayed by nearly an hour because of showers in the area and more rain fell overnight and during the morning.
Temperatures were predicted to be in the mid to low 70s during the afternoon, with thunderstorms forecast during the 4 p.m. losers’ bracket game.
There is a 50 percent chance of rain for UMaine’s game, in the 8 to 10 p.m. window.
Bazdanes to pitch Game 2
A.J. Bazdanes is expected to get the start for the Black Bears against Binghamton.
The senior right-hander has a 6-5 record with a 3.23 earned run average. He has allowed 81 hits with 67 strikeouts and 23 walks in 92 innings of work.
Bazdanes is 1-0 in two appearances against the Bearcats this season. He went seven innings in a 3-2 win at Mahaney Diamond in Orono on April 7, then gave up seven hits and three earned runs in a May 12 start, lasting only 3 1/3 innings.
His line against Binghamton this season: 15 1/3 innings, 12 hits, 5 runs (all earned), 1 walk, 6 strikeouts (2.94 ERA).
That means Connolly (5-3, 2.04 ERA) will get the start in Friday’s game.
His defensive presence at catcher, including his ability to throw out base-runners, along with his solid bat, is a key for the Bears.
If he were to pitch Thursday, there would be significant resulting fatigue and strain on a Connolly’s arm if the coaching staff were to put him back behind the plate for one, or possibly two, games on Friday.
Binghamton is expected to counter Thursday night with pitcher Jack Rogalla. The junior right-hander is 4-4 with a 2.84 ERA and a .253 opponents’ batting average.
Rogalla is 0-2 against UMaine this season. He gave up seven hits and three runs in six innings and took the loss in the April 7 game.
On May 12, he went seven innings and allowed nine hits and four runs.
His season line against the Bears: 13 innings, 16 hits, 7 runs (all earned), 3 walks, 8 strikeouts (4.85 ERA).