On Wednesday afternoon, the University of Maine baseball team was practicing at Mahaney Diamond in Orono. On Friday, the Black Bears open their season with the first of a three-game series at Clemson (South Carolina).
Former Bangor High School standout Justin Courtney takes the mound as coach Steve Trimper’s club begins a challenging schedule with a 4 p.m. contest against the Tigers of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
UMaine and Clemson, under new coach Monte Lee, play Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. in nine-inning games.
“We’re really excited to get out and play another team. It’s a good challenge again starting out with an ACC team like Clemson, but they’re the teams you want to play,” said Trimper, who begins his 11th season in Orono.
UMaine is coming off a 24-28 season (10-10 in America East) when it was bounced from the conference tournament in two games. The Black Bears must replace four of their top five hitters and look to solidify a pitching staff that posted a 4.84 team earned run average in 2015.
“I’m really excited to see how we pitch,” Trimper said. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming back with experience and some guys coming off of injuries.”
Courtney, a 6-foot-5 right-hander, was 5-6 with a 3.24 earned run average last season. He’ll be followed in this weekend’s rotation by redshirt freshman righty Chris Murphy, who sat out last season after undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery, and junior Jeff Gelinas, a 6-4 righty from Saco.
Gelinas (3-1, 5.51) dealt with shoulder and knee ailments a year ago and struggled, while Murphy is a 6-5, 270-pound right-hander who was a 29th-round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2014.
Murphy is limited to 50 pitches during his first three appearances as he returns to game action. Starting will enable him to go through more calculated stretching and warmups to adequately get ready to pitch.
He’ll likely be relieved by either freshman righty Nick Silva, a nephew of New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, 6-7 sophomore right-hander John Arel, who worked only five innings in 2015, or sophomore righty Jonah Normandeau of Cumberland, who pitched just 6⅓ innings last year coming off Tommy John surgery.
The Black Bears will back them with senior setup man Charlie Butler (3-5, 4.80, 4 saves) and senior closer Logan Fullmer (1-1, 3.75, 4 saves) who combined to work 102⅔ innings last season.
UMaine also expects to put a better defense on the field. A revamped infield includes three freshmen, led by Atlanta Braves draftee Jeremy Pena (39th round), who will play shortstop.
He is joined by freshman third baseman Danny Casals, sophomore Caleb Kerbs and freshman Zach Quintal of Eliot at second base, and senior first baseman Brendan Geary (.280, 3 home runs, 20 runs batted in).
“It’s as solid an infield as we’ve had since the 2011 and 2013 teams that we had,” Trimper said.
UMaine plays Feb. 26-28 at New Mexico State after opening this weekend.