University of Maine freshman pitcher Gianni Gambardella throws a pitch during a recent game. Credit: Courtesy of UMaine athletics

University of Maine head baseball coach Nick Derba recruited pitcher Gianni Gambardella out of West Haven High School in Connecticut.

But he also had help from former 2013 UMaine America East Pitcher of the Year Tommy Lawrence, who went to the same high school and helped lock Gambardella down.

“It sounded like I would fit right in,” Gambardella said.

The true freshman certainly has.

The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Gambardella is having an impressive first season for the Black Bears including a Sunday gem in which he pitched seven scoreless innings to lead UMaine to an important 9-0 win over the University of Maryland Baltimore County. It salvaged the third game of that series after a pair of 9-8 setbacks for UMaine.

The win moved the league-leading Black Bears another step closer to a second consecutive America East regular season championship and a first-round bye for the tournament which goes to the top two finishers.

“It’s like watching Cody Laweryson,” Derba said, referring to the former Black Bear ace who is currently pitching for the St. Paul Saints, the Minnesota Twins’ AAA affiliate. “He approaches everything the same way.”

Gambardella has the lowest earned-run average on the team among pitchers who have thrown at least three innings at 3.38. He is in a three-way tie for the team lead in wins with a 5-2 record across 37 1/3 innings and allowed 37 hits and 17 earned runs. He has struck out 28 and walked seven. Opponents are hitting .257 against him.

Junior shortstop Jake Rainess commended Gambardella for his confidence, saying his attitude is the same in the most and least competitive games.

“The kid is a robot,” Rainess grinned. “He was made in a lab.”

Gambardella said he wasn’t nervous before Sunday’s game.

“I just go out there and have fun and play baseball. I don’t try to overthink anything. I just try to be me,” he said. “Stay in the zone.”

Gambardella is a three-pitch pitcher, throwing a four-seam fastball in the 88-91 miles per hour range, a change-up and a slider. He struck out 16 in a game for West Haven High last season against defending state Class LL champ Norwalk.

He has quickly adjusted to Division I play. Over his last five outings, he has posted a 1.50 ERA while allowing 13 hits in 18 innings with 11 strikeouts and four walks.

Gambardella said while he has been happy with his season so far, he needs to throw fewer strikes and get hitters to chase outside the zone. Derba said as Gambardella keeps getting better and gets more hitters to chase pitches out of the strike zone, he will wind up with more strikeouts.

Derba said a New York state high school baseball coach was the first person to tell him about Gambardella during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the team knew it was getting a “special arm” and a proven winner.

Gambardella has been a starter and a reliever this season. He began the season as a starter like in high school. When he had a minor elbow ailment, they worked him back in as a reliever. His primary focus now is improving a slider that he wants to be more consistent with.

He said he intends to continue working hard to improve, including spending time in the weight room.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said.