Matt Pushard had an impressive freshman season in 2017 as a relief pitcher for the University of Maine baseball team.
The former Brewer High School standout posted a sparkling 1.00 earned run average in 11 appearances covering 18 innings. He allowed only seven hits and struck out 13 while walking four.
Opponents hit just .121 against him.
But a partial tear in his throwing shoulder ended his sophomore season after just 1 2/3 innings.
In 2019, Pushard struggled, going 0-2 with a 6.33 ERA. He walked 29, hit three batters and uncorked nine wild pitches in 21 1/3 innings.
“I was healthy but my command wasn’t there,” he said.
He appeared in four games during a COVID-19-shortened 2020 season and was 0-3 with a 6.27 ERA with nine walks and seven hit batters in 18 2/3 innings.
Pushard never gave up on himself.
He said catch-play has helped him regain his control. Catch-play involves a pitcher warming up by focusing only on hitting a target.
Despite dealing with a slight flexor strain suffered on April 10, he has bounced back this season to emerge as UMaine’s reliable closer with 37 strikeouts and seven walks with two saves and a 3.73 ERA in 31 1/3 innings.
“He can be a game-changer for us. He can be a starter or the closer,” said UMaine head coach Nick Derba, whose team faces host Stony Brook in Thursday’s 11 a.m. America East tournament opener.
On Saturday, Pushard picked up his second save with three innings of four-hit, two-run relief in a 4-2 win over Albany that capped a doubleheader sweep and helped the Black Bears to earn a tourney spot. He struck out four and didn’t walk anyone.
“We were going to win with Matt or lose with him. He got the job done,” Derba said.
The 6-foot-4, 250-pound right-hander said he is throwing as well as he ever has.
“It’s always good to know your coach is behind you like that. It’s a great vote of confidence,” Pushard said.
The flexor strain, which caused tightness in his shoulder, hasn’t bothered him recently. He said he will be ready for whatever role he is asked to fill.
“I just want to play. I threw 45 pitches on Saturday and around 50 in an earlier outing, so I’ll be ready if he [Derba] wants me to start a game,” Pushard said.
The 23-year-old Pushard’s best pitch is his fastball, which he throws in the low 90s (mph). He also has a curveball (78-80 mph), a changeup and a sinker.
He credited teammate Jacob Small with helping him establish an effective changeup grip two years ago.
“His fastball gets on you quickly and he throws strikes,” freshman teammate Quinn McDaniel said.
“His best pitch is his fastball,” junior catcher Ryan Turenne said. “He throws a heavy ball. And he has a big presence out there. He’s confident.”
UMaine ace Nick Sinacola has complete confidence in Pushard’s ability to close out a game and is glad Pushard has overcome his injuries.
“He throws hard and he has good movement on his ball,” Sinacola said. “He’s definitely taken some good jumps this year. And he’s a great guy to be around.”
Pushard said he has learned a lot from Sinacola, who has a cerebral approach to pitching and knows how to set hitters up and exploit their weaknesses.
“He does a really good job duplicating pitches and making them look similar,” Pushard said.
Pushard, who strives to make a difference for the team, came into this season looking to have a big year. Pitching at UMaine is a dream come true for him.
“I always wanted to pitch for Maine. I’m really close with my parents [Phil and Jackie] and I wanted them to be able to see me pitch at home,” he said.
“It’s also nice to put the state you grew up in on your chest and go out and play hard every day,” he said.
Pushard is looking forward to the America East tournament and said the Black Bears should have some momentum.
“It’s a brand-new season and we’ll have our ace [Sinacola] on the mound for game one and you can’t ask for anything better than that,” Pushard said. “Nick will go out and pitch well like he has all season.”
UMaine will be an underdog, but he doesn’t mind.
“No one expects us to do well, but we’re going to come out firing,” he said.