University of Maine relief pitcher Justin Baeyens winds up for a pitch during a recent UMaine baseball game. Credit: Courtesy of UMaine Athletics

The University of Maine’s baseball team lengthened its lead atop America East by taking two of three games from its closest pursuer, Binghamton, in Vestal, New York, over the weekend.

The team will now play six non-conference games before it returns to conference play with a three-game set at UMass Lowell on April 28, 29 and 30.

In the wake of Sunday’s 18-17 loss to Binghamton, UMaine head coach Nick Derba said his primary focus in the non-conference games is improving his bullpen.

He has three established starters in sophomores Colin Fitzgerald and Caleb Leys along with junior Noah Lewis from South Portland and two dependable relievers in freshman Gianni Gambardella and graduate student transfer Justin Baeyens. Gambardella had been a starter until suffering a minor injury but he is healthy again and is pitching out of the bullpen.

But relievers Andrew Chevarie, Luc Lavigueur, Geoff Mosseau, Ryan Scott and Colton Carson all have earned run averages in excess of 7.70 and all have walked more hitters than they have struck out.

In fact, UMaine’s pitching staff is surrendering 6.35 walks per nine innings. Only 22 schools have issued more than that this season among the 295 Division I programs. The team earned-run average is 7.40, which is also near the bottom of the rankings (247th).

All five relievers have had good outings this season but they haven’t been consistent.

Derba said the non-conference games are going to be “huge” for the team because the relievers are all going to get multiple appearances.

“I want to see what our bullpen arms can do,” Derba said.

UMaine is 11-1 in the league, 17-12 overall, and has a three and a half game lead over second place Binghamton (6-3, 19-12).  

Derba is convinced that at least two of those five relievers will provide his team with solid and consistent outings. If so, the Black Bears would have seven or eight quality pitchers instead of five or six.

In the Binghamton setback, Scott, Chevarie and Mosseau pitched well in relief, but Carson and Lavigueur each allowed six runs on three hits and three walks in an inning and an inning and one-third, respectively.

Scott tossed 2 1/3 innings of three-hit, one-run ball with three strikeouts, while Mosseau threw 1 2/3 innings of one-hit shutout ball and Chevarie allowed one hit in one scoreless inning.

Every bullpen in America East has issues, Derba said.

“We’re averaging almost nine runs a game (8.4) and a lot of that is because of the bullpens of the other teams,” Derba said. “We have to get our bullpen locked in. That has been our focus the last two weeks. We had some success last weekend.”

Gambardella threw four innings of two-hit shutout relief in Saturday’s 5-4 win. He struck out four and didn’t walk anybody and picked up the win.

Baeyens hurled two scoreless innings on Friday, allowing two hits, striking out two and not walking anyone to earn the save.

Carson and Lavigueur have each had six scoreless appearances among their 12, and Derba expects junior righty Carson and freshman righty Lavigueur to develop into reliable arms, especially Carson.

“[Carson] has to step up for us. He has good stuff. But he has to throw strikes,” Derba said.

In a come-from-behind 4-3 10-inning win over Albany the previous weekend, Carson came on in relief in the seventh inning and struck out two hitters with the bases loaded and one out and UMaine trailing 3-2. He then pitched a scoreless eighth.

The Black Bears are continuing to be among the nation’s top hitting teams with four top-30 rankings among 295 Division I teams.

UMaine is 13th in on-base percentage (.425), 23rd in runs per game (8.4), 25th in batting average (.311) and 29th in homers per game (1.69).

They are also 44th in stolen bases per game (1.69).

Junior second baseman Quinn McDaniel continues to lead the country in walks per game (1.45) and is tied for total walks (42) and he is third in on-base percentage (.570).

Sophomore first baseman Jeremiah Jenkins is second in runs-batted in per game (1.69), tied for eighth in homers per game (.45) and 10th in on-base percentage (.541).

He has 13 homers in 29 games.

They are each hitting .394 to lead the team.

Junior shortstop Jake Rainess leads the country in runs scored per game (1.72). Rainess is on the Brooks Wallace Watch List. The award goes to the nation’s best Division I shortstop.

UMaine will entertain Division III Thomas College from Waterville on Thursday at 4 p.m. before former America East member Hartford, which is transitioning to Division III, comes to Orono for games on Friday (4 p.m.), Saturday (1 p.m.) and Sunday (noon).

UMaine will welcome Division I Northeast Conference team Merrimack on Tuesday at 3 p.m. and will then visit Merrimack on Wednesday at 3 p.m.