University of Maine baseball coach Nick Derba talks to players in dugout during a baseball game against the University of Hartford on April 8, 2017. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

After taking their lumps against quality non-conference opponents from nationally ranked Louisiana State University to former University of Maine coach Steve Trimper’s Stetson University, the UMaine baseball team now goes into conference play.

The Black Bears, 3-11, will travel to 3-10 Binghamton to open America East play on Friday at 3 p.m. The teams will play three nine-inning games with a 1 p.m. game on Saturday and a noon contest on Sunday in Vestal, N.Y. to follow Friday’s opener.

“We have fewer question marks than the stats show,” said eighth-year UMaine head coach Nick Derba. “We have some pitchers who have taken a step forward over the past week and some of the guys who are expected to carry us offensively but hadn’t done much early have been a little more successful lately.”

The biggest question mark entering the season was how were the Black Bears going to compensate for the loss of its top two starting pitchers in Nick Sinacola (9-3 record, 2.04 earned run average, 139 strikeouts in 79 1/3 innings) and Hampden’s Alex McKenney (4-6, 3.67).

Each of them are now in professional camps, but two pitchers are picking up the slack. Freshman lefty Caleb Leys is 1-0 with a 2.89 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 18 1/3 innings. Opponents are hitting just .156 against the reigning America East Rookie of the Week. Graduate student righty Brett Erwin, a transfer from the University of California-Davis, is 0-2 with a 3.75 ERA and has struck out 28 and walked only five in 24 innings.

They will each start a game this weekend as will graduate student righthander and University of Maryland transfer Trevor LaBonte of York. LaBonte is 0-2 with a 5.25 ERA but has pitched well of late, allowing four earned runs over his last 10 innings.

Graduate student and Richmond transfer Jordan Schulefand and sophomores Noah Lewis and Tyler Nielsen are other starting options but Nielsen is nursing an ulnar collateral ligament injury (elbow) and has not pitched yet. He was 2-2 with a 4.40 ERA last season.

South Portland’s Lewis was on the America East All-Rookie when he was 4-6 with a 5.16 ERA but has struggled in the early going as has Schulefand .

Graduate student Matt Pushard from Brewer, who had a team-high three saves in 2021 along with a 3.78 ERA, headlines the bullpen. But he has been dealing with some injury issues and is now just coming back to full strength, according to Derba.

Leif Bigelow (1-0, 5.73 this season), Andrew Ruggiero, Oxford Hills of South Paris’ Colton Carson and freshman Colin Fitzgerald are among other bullpen options. Redshirt junior lefty Nick Caviglia has been used as a specialist against opposing left-handed hitters and hasn’t given up a run in three appearances.

Derba said he has been “pretty happy” with his staff, which has walked 2 1/2 fewer hitters per game this season compared with last season.

“In our conference, the team that walks the fewest hitters in a game usually wins,” he said.

The Black Bears, who were picked to finish fifth in the American East preseason poll, are hitting .232 as a team but Derba said “we’ve seen some top-end talent” on the mound and added “our offensive numbers will get better.”

UMaine did lose leading hitter and first team All-America East selection Sean Lawlor (.350-7 homers-37 RBIs) to graduation but just about everyone else returns.

Center fielder and leadoff man Jeff Mejia is leading the team in hitting at .341, 62 points higher than he hit a year ago. Freshman designated hitter Jeremiah Jackson (.286-1-5) has been a pleasant surprise and second baseman Quinn McDaniel from Eliot is hitting .268 with a homer  and eight RBIs. He also hit .268 a year ago.

Graduate student first baseman Joe Bramanti, a former all-league second team choice, hasn’t hit for average yet at .228 but he leads the team in homers (4) and RBIs (15). He hit .293 with six homers and 28 RBIs in 2021.

Shortstop Jake Marquez’s .239 average is 92 points better than a year ago but he has issues in the field, Derba said.

Starting slowly early this year are catcher Ryan Turenne, who is hitting .216 after hitting .308 in 2021, left fielder Scout Knotts (.204, .295 a year ago), and third baseman Jake Rainess (.179, .260). Derba expects each to swing the bats better. Knotts is coming off a shoulder injury. Catcher Colby Emmertz of Falmouth is hitting .412 but is also dealing with a shoulder injury.

Derba is also expecting more at the plate from Schulefand, who starts in right field when he isn’t pitching. He hit .321 for Richmond last year but is hitting .191 right now.

Third baseman Connor Goodman hit .287 a year ago but is 0-for-11. Freshman infielder Myles Sargent (.176) has some promise according to Derba.

The defense has been shoddy so far with 19 errors in 14 games.

“We’ve had three to five games we could have won but we handed the games away because we couldn’t take care of the ball or make routine plays,” he said.

Derba is an optimist and feels his team can compete for the coveted top two spots in a conference he said has parity. The top two finishers will earn first-round byes for the six-team double elimination tournament at UMaine’s Mahaney Diamond in Orono beginning May 25.

UMaine was 22-22 a year ago, 16-17 in conference regular season play, and went 1-2 in the conference tournament.