Alex McKenney of the University of Maine delivers a pitch against Binghamton University during a game at Mahaney Diamond in Orono. The junior has overcome reconstructive elbow surgery to become a key contributor on the Black Bears staff. Credit: Courtesy of Peter Buehner

The University of Maine’s youthful baseball team came one strike away from not making the America East playoffs. The Black Bears then were within three outs of winning the tournament and earning a spot in the NCAA Division I baseball tournament.

There was nothing consistent about the 2021 UMaine baseball team with the exception of ace right-hander Nick Sinacola, who was named the America East Pitcher of the Year after posting a school-record 139 strikeouts. That leads the nation’s 286 Division I programs.

He struck out more hitters than former UMaine Major Leaguers Billy Swift, who was the National League Cy Young Award runner-up in 1993, Bert Roberge, Joe Johnson and Jeff Plympton.

Sinacola’s 15.77 strikeouts per nine innings ranks second in the country.

Offensively, the Black Bears scored at least eight runs in a game 15 times but they were held to two runs or fewer 12 times.

The result, appropriately enough, was a 22-22 record.

The Black Bears rallied for three runs with two outs in the seventh in the first game of a doubleheader sweep of Albany on the last weekend of the regular season that they needed to get in the tournament.

The team’s best hitter, Flagler University transfer Sean Lawlor, who batted .350 with seven home runs and 37 runs batted in, and Sinacola (9-3, 2.04 earned run average) won’t be back. Nor will reliever Peter Kemble of Bangor.

Derba expects Sinacola, a junior, to be drafted and sign a pro contract. Despite the key losses, he still has high expectations.

“I think we’ll be better next season,” Derba said.

That’s because everyone else is returning.

Third baseman Connor Goodman (.287-0-18), slick-fielding shortstop Jake Marquez (.147-1-19), second baseman Quinn McDaniel (.268-6-20), first baseman Joe Bramanti (.293-6-28), catcher Ryan Turenne (.308-5-19) and starting outfielders Scout Knotts (.295-4-21) and Jeff Mejia (.282-1-16) all will be back along with Jake Rainess (.260-4-17), who filled in when Knotts and Mejia were sidelined by injury.

Jayson Gonzalez (.280), Colby Emmertz (.200) and Colin Plante (.177) saw playing time and incoming freshmen Sebastian Holt and Myles Sargent could contribute.

UMaine batted .270 as a team and averaged 5.8 runs per game, but struggled to get timely hits in several of its losses.

“We will be deeper, offensively,” Derba predicted.

The pitching staff has promise.

Hampden’s Alex McKenney (4-6, 3.67) enjoyed a breakthrough season including a 1.98 ERA over his last four starts and eight innings of shutout baseball in the AE Tournament winners’ bracket game against the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Two unearned runs in the ninth inning gave NJIT a 2-1 victory.

That ultimately sent NJIT to the NCAA Tournament because rain ended the tournament prematurely.

Sinacola had beaten favorite and host Stony Brook 4-2 in the tourney opener.

Noah Lewis (4-6, 5.16) was chosen for the all-rookie team and had a strong start to the season. He has to correct the issues that led to him giving up 17 earned runs in 17 innings over his last four starts.

Freshman lefty Tyler Nielsen (2-2, 4.40) hurled six innings of shutout ball in a must-win situation against Albany as UMaine triumphed 4-2 in the second game to earn the final playoff berth thanks to a Hartford sweep of UMass Lowell.

Brewer’s Matt Pushard (0-0, 3.78, 3 saves) emerged as the closer and will also be back. He could become a starter. Jacob Small (1-0, 6.41) didn’t allow a run in six of his 12 relief appearances.

The pitching staff had a 4.76 ERA.

Transfer Andrew Shaw, a 6-foot-6 lefty from Eckerd College in Florida who was 4-0 with an 0.84 ERA in 2019, and incoming freshman Colin Fitzgerald could be impactful immediately on the mound.