Jake Rainess, shortstop for the University of Maine baseball team, is among the top shortstops in the country this season. Credit: Courtesy of UMaine Athletics

Last season should have been frustrating for Jake Rainess.

The University of Maine’s starting third baseman was off to a good start, hitting .319 through 19 games with two homers, 10 runs batted in and five stolen bases.

Then he got hit by a pitch and broke his index finger. His season ended on April 2.

But Rainess had a different perspective.

“It may sound crazy but that was the best thing to ever happen to me in my career,” said Rainess, who explained that instead of sulking, he used it as an opportunity to learn as much as he could about baseball.

He found himself talking baseball strategy and the intricacies of the game with head coach Nick Derba and assistant Scott Heath during games.

“They helped me understand the game more and I learned to take advantage of it,” Rainess said. “I figured out what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at.”

A healthy Rainess is certainly making up for lost time this season.

The Baltimore native currently finds himself on the Brooks Wallace Award Watch List, an award given to the nation’s top Division I shortstop. Entering Wednesday’s non-conference game with Merrimack College, the Baltimore native was leading the country in runs per game with 1.71. The Black Bear leadoff hitter was third in total runs scored with 58, fourth in the country in stolen bases per game at .85 and fifth in total stolen bases with 29 in 32 attempts.

He was also hitting .358 with 58 runs scored in 34 games.

UMaine took a 21-13 record into the Merrimack game.

The current America East Player of the Week is in the midst of a 10-game hitting streak during which he has hit .500 (21-for-42) with five homers, 10 RBIs and 19 runs scored.

“When he couldn’t play last year, he became a student of the game,” Derba said. “He also realized how important the game was to him.”

One of the people who influenced his defensive philosophy is former UMaine star and MLB All-Star shortstop Mike Bordick. Bordick lives in the Baltimore area and his son, Dawson, is a friend and former classmate of Rainess.

“Mister Bordick said as an infielder, you have to be hungry. You have to be aggressive,” Rainess said.

Derba doesn’t think he could have a better lead-off hitter than Rainess.

“He does a lot of things well. He is a fantastic athlete,” Derba said.

He is also extremely versatile, his coach pointed out. Rainess has played outfield, third base and shortstop in his time at UMaine.

Rainess said shortstop has always been his favorite — he played the position in middle and high school — and he grew up idolizing shortstops like Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.

Rainess wasn’t heavily recruited so he decided to spend a year after high school at a prep school. He had vacationed in Boothbay Harbor during the summers and decided to go to Bridgton Academy, where he played for former UMaine first team All-America East selection Aaron Izaryk.

“That was the best thing to happen to me at a young age,” Rainess said. “Coach Izaryk was pushing me to go to UMaine from day one.”

Izaryk was a valuable influence and one of things he stressed was how to run the bases smartly and aggressively.

Rainess played eight games as a freshman at UMaine and hit .260 as a sophomore in 28 games before last year’s injury-shortened campaign.

Derba said Rainess isn’t the fastest player on the team but he is fearless on the basepaths, which has led to his success as a base stealer.

Rainess said his base stealing has nothing to do with a pitcher’s reaction time.

“I read situations more than anything. I’ve learned to take my time and run when the odds are in my favor. I think I’m good at finding the right situation to run in,” said Rainess, who will occasionally use the delayed steal, which is running when the catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher.

He also said having Quinn McDaniel and Jeremiah Jenkins behind him in the lineup has been a blessing, because pitchers have to worry about facing them next.

McDaniel was hitting. .377 with nine homers and Jeremiah Jenkins leads the team in homers (14) and RBIs (54).

McDaniel and Rainess were teammates on the Sanford Mainers in the New England Collegiate Baseball League last summer and Rainess said it was beneficial because they worked out together and played with and against some of the best college players in the country.

Rainess has been happy with his season so far but said he is more dialed in on team goals.

“We have four team goals: win 30 games, win the America East regular season title, win the America East Tournament and, then, get to a Super Regional,” said the 23-year-old. “Those goals are all realistic with this team.”