The University of Maine’s baseball team is off to its best start in America East play since 2013.
The Black Bears are 12-3 and atop the conference standings following a three-game sweep at Albany this past weekend. They are 9-0 on the road.
The 2013 UMaine team got off a 13-3 start.
The Black Bears are exactly halfway through their conference schedule and are in very good position to earn one of the top two seeds for the six-team, double-elimination conference tournament which means they would earn a valuable first-round bye in the tournament, being held at UMaine’s Mahaney Diamond in Orono.
UMaine is one of just three teams in the conference with a winning record. Stony Brook and defending tournament champion New Jersey Institute of Technology are both 10-5 but Stony Brook can’t play in the conference tournament because it is leaving the conference for the Colonial Athletic Association after this year. An America East bylaw forbids a departing team from playing in the conference championships.
Fifth-year head coach Nick Derba said he had high expectations for his team but it has also surprised him.
“Going 9-0 on the road is obviously something I didn’t plan on. But our goal is to win two out of three games every weekend,” Derba said.
“But we’re still in search of a game where we pitch well, hit well and play good defense. We need to put things together for the playoffs.”
Graduate student first baseman Joe Bramanti said he thought a start like this was a “definite” possibility.
“We had been waiting for the tide to turn for us. We’re all confident now,” Bramanti said. “We have a winning mentality. Everybody on this team hates losing. So even when we get behind, we know we’re going to get our chance to come back. We stay [positive] and pick each other up.”
UMaine erased a 3-1 deficit to earn a 7-6 win over Albany on Sunday and, the previous weekend, the Black Bears overcame a 6-2 deficit to edge NJIT 7-6.
The offense has carried the team.
In conference play, the Black Bears lead America East in batting average (.330), runs (146), homers (25), slugging percentage (.544) and on-base percentage (.435). They also lead in batting average (.285) and homers (33) in all games, including non-conference contests.
“This is the most depth we’ve had in the lineup [in my five years],” said Bramanti. “Guys are stepping up and filling big spots. We didn’t have that in the past.”
Bramanti also said that the team is putting the ball in play more often than in previous years, and players are running the bases better.
“There are too many strikeouts in baseball,” Bramanti said. “So we really harp on not going down without a fight. We try to put the ball in play somewhere.”
That was a key to the weekend sweep of Albany as the Great Danes committed 10 errors in three games, which helped fuel the UMaine offense.
“We have been able to capitalize on errors and walks,” Bramanti said.
Seven regulars are hitting at least .280 in all games, led by center fielder and leadoff hitter Jeff Mejia, who is hitting .376 and has 15 runs batted in. He missed the Albany series with a knee injury but could be back for this weekend’s three-game home set with UMass Lowell.
The others hitting over .300 are second baseman Quinn McDaniel (.317-5 homers-26 runs batted in), shortstop Jake Marquez (.308-1-10) and Richmond transfer Jordan Schulefand (.301-2-17). Connor Goodman, who is replacing the injured Jake Rainess at third, is hitting .294, left fielder Scout Knotts is at .284 with six homers and 20 RBIs, and Bramanti leads the team in homers (11) and RBIs (43) while also hitting .280.
Freshman designated hitter Jeremiah Jenkins has hit four homers and driven in 15 runs while hitting .263.
In just conference games, Bramanti is the league leader in homers (7), RBIs (28) and slugging percentage (.770) and Schulefand is tops in on-base percentage (.563) and on-base plus slugging (OPS) at 1.215 and is second in batting average (.413). Goodman is hitting .435 but doesn’t have enough at bats to qualify yet.
Derba feels the pitching staff has good potential “but they need to get a little more consistent.”
University of Maryland transfer Trevor LaBonte, son of former UMaine quarterback Rich LaBonte, along with University of California-Davis transfer Brett Erwin and freshman Caleb Leys have been starting the conference games. Leys is 1-1 with a 3.89 earned run average in all games; Erwin is 2-3, 4.03 and LaBonte is 3-3, 4.54.
Sophomore reliever Noah Lewis has been the most valuable player of the last two series, according to Derba, as the South Portland native has tossed 9 ⅔ innings of three-hit shutout ball.
Graduate student Matt Pushard has four saves and a 2-1 record as the closer to go with an 8.20 ERA.
“The staff gives us a chance to win every game. They may give up a few runs here or there but they step up and pitch their butts off when we need them to,” Bramanti said.
Derba said his team has been playing better defensively of late but it still has a ways to go.
“Better defense and better pitching go hand in hand,” he said.
UMaine (15-14 overall) will host 16-6 Colby College of Waterville for a 5 p.m. non-conference game on Tuesday before welcoming UMass Lowell (14-19, 7-8 in America East) on Friday (4 p.m.), Saturday (1 p.m.) and Sunday (noon).