Caleb Leys has had the American East baseball tournament circled on his calendar for a long time.
The University of Maine sophomore pitcher got roughed up in the tournament a year ago, allowing five hits, four runs and three walks in just 1 ⅓ innings of work in a 9-7 loss to the New Jersey Institute of Technology in an elimination game held at Mahaney Diamond in Orono.
The Black Bears, who were the league regular season co-champs and the top seed, were ousted in just two games, losing both 9-7 to UMass Lowell and NJIT.
They are the outright champs this season and will play their opener on Thursday at 11 a.m. in Vestal, N.Y. against the lowest-seeded winner of the two Wednesday single-elimination games between No. 4 Bryant and fifth seed UMass Lowell and No. 3 Binghamton and No. 6 NJIT.
Sophomore righthander Colin Fitzgerald will probably pitch Thursday’s opener of the double-elimination portion of the tournament but Leys could start game two.
“I’ve been looking forward to this the whole year,” said lefthander Leys, who tossed five innings of four-hit shutout ball with eight strikeouts and two walks in last Friday’s 3-1 win over Bryant (R.I.). That improved his record to 4-0 on the season.
“I’m ready to get back and, hopefully, win the game and have a good start and get to the championship and to a regional,” said Leys referring to the fact the tourney champ gets an automatic bid to the NCAA Division I Tournament.
Leys’ biggest issue at UMaine has been his control.
The member of the 2022 America East All-Rookie team has walked 47 hitters in 59 innings this season but he also has 61 strikeouts and opponents are hitting just .234 against him.
“He can be the best pitcher in the league, no doubt about it,” said UMaine head coach Nick Derba. “When he throws strikes, he’s real good.”
Leys walked two of the first three hitters he faced against Bryant but didn’t walk another hitter the rest of his outing.
“My arm side command was very good. I was able to dart the ball outside to the lefties and inside to righties. That was huge, especially the way my ball plays,” he said.
“He was phenomenal. I have to tip my cap to him,” said Bryant designated hitter Lewis Barnum. “He was struggling with his command early and we were taking until we got a strike but then he threw all of his pitches for strikes in the second, third, fourth and fifth innings. He pounded the ball inside on righties.”
Bryant second baseman Jake Gustin added that “he has a real good arm. He had good velocity and he worked both sides of the plate really well.”
Leys, who pitched Middletown (R.I.) High School to its first ever state title with a 16-strikeout, six-inning one-hitter in a 10-0 mercy rule win over Burrillville to clinch its best-of-three series in 2021, was 3-3 a year ago with a 4.64 earned-run average for the Black Bears. He struck out 68 and walked 47 in 66 innings.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Leys is in the midst of his best stretch of the season.
Over his last five starts, he has compiled a 2.78 ERA and allowed 17 hits and 14 walks in 23 innings with 28 strikeouts.
Prior to his Bryant start, he had allowed two hits and two runs with two walks in two innings.
“I was a little shaky and Coach Derba talked to me. He has confidence in me and that really helped me with my confidence,” said Leys.
“If he can throw his pitches in the strike zone, his stuff is really good,” said UMaine second baseman Quinn McDaniel. “He isn’t easy to hit. He spins it really well.”
Leys throws a fastball in the high-80s/low-90s, a slider and a changeup.
Leys said his issues with his control can sometimes be attributed to “mental cues, especially with the slider. I’m really focusing on getting my thumb over the top and through the ball. And making sure it’s low so I’m not hanging anything [out over the plate.]”
He said his recent stretch has given him confidence going into the tournament.
Leys said in meetings with Derba, they discussed taking everything “one inning at a time and one pitch at time. Not letting one at-bat get too big. Just keep everything simple.”
He said he knows anything can happen in a tournament “like you saw last year” but he is confident that if the team plays hard and up to its capabilities, it has a good shot to win it.