University of Maine sophomore righthander Colin Fitzgerald has emerged as the pitching staff's ace for the 2023 season. Credit: Courtesy of UMaine Athletics

If the University of Maine’s baseball team is going to win its first America East tournament championship since 2011, it is going to need quality starts beginning Thursday.

UMaine is an offensive-minded team led by newly minted conference Player of the Year Jeremiah Jenkins, who hit .371 with 18 home runs and 70 runs batted in and led his team to a 26-9 record over its last 35 games after a 3-10 start.

With a 19-5 record in the conference, the Black Bears won the top spot during the regular season for the second year in a row. Pitching was their downfall in 2022, when they scored seven runs in each of its two tournament games but wound up losing both games 9-7.

Seven runs should be enough to win a playoff game.

This year, the starters need to perform because the bullpen has been iffy with the exception of freshman Gianni Gambardella and closer Justin Baeyens. A handful of relievers have shown that they are capable of getting the job done, but the consistency just hasn’t been there.

UMaiine’s 2023 pitching staff is a notch above last year’s. The team earned-run average is 5.97 compared with last year’s 6.31, even though they don’t have a shutdown ace like recent All-American Nick Sinacola or Cody Laweryson, who is currently pitching for the AAA St. Paul Saints in the Minnesota Twins organization.

Sophomore first team All-America East righty Colin Fitzgerald is significantly improved and has been a reliable No. 1. He gave the Black Bears at least six innings in six of his eight starts prior to last week’s meaningless game against Bryant in which he was held to four innings.

He is 6-1 with a 4.27 earned run average, but if you take out an early season outing against Maryland in which he surrendered 12 earned runs in three innings, he has posted a 2.88 ERA. Opponents are hitting just .248 against him.

He will start UMaine’s Thursday tourney opener against the lowest-seeded winner in Wednesday’s two games in the single-elimination portion of the tournament to be held in Vestal, N.Y. The tourney shifts to a double-elimination format on Thursday.

Head coach Nick Derba, who was named the league’s best coach for the second year in a row on Tuesday, has options for his second starter.

One is dynamic lefty Caleb Leys, who is 4-0 with a 4.73 ERA, has struggled with his control most of the season (47 walks in 59 innings) but has gone at least five innings in three of his last five starts and didn’t allow an earned run in those three starts.

Another is South Portland junior Noah Lewis, an all-league second teamer who has put together two impressive outings entering the tournament, allowing two hits and no runs with seven strikeouts and one walk. He is 6-1 with a 4.36 ERA, and opponents are hitting just .197 against him.

A wild card is All-America East first teamer and All-Rookie teamer Gambardella. He is 5-3 with a 3.40 ERA and has been their most consistent strike-thrower, walking only 11 in 47 2/3 innings. He can start or relieve, coming in behind Leys over much of the second half of the season.

In the bullpen, Baeyens has six saves and has allowed five earned runs in his last 11 outings with four of them coming in one appearance. He is 3-3 with a 4.99 ERA.

The middle relievers who are likely to be called into service include Oxford Hills’ Colton Carson (0-2, 9.86 ERA), Tyler Nielsen (1-2, 10.00), Ryan Scott (1-3, 9.68), Andrew Chevarie (0-1, 9.00), All-Rookie Team pick Luc Lavigueur (1-3, 7.92) and Sebastian Holt (1-0, 4.50).

The offense should produce, as it has all season. Jenkins’ statistics this year are reminiscent of past UMaine left-handed sluggers like All-Americans Mark Sweeney and Rick Bernardo. He only has three hits in his last 18 at-bats, but look for him to snap out of it in the tournament.

There is a strong supporting cast as well, led by second baseman Quinn McDaniel (.358-14-41) of Eliot, designated hitter Connor Goodman (.330-2-45) and shortstop Jake Rainess (.325-15-45), all of whom joined Jenkins on the All-America East first team. Left fielder Nick White returned from a separated shoulder and is hitting .392.

The Black Bears are hitting .295 as a team and averaging 7.5 runs per game. They have hit 75 homers and stolen 96 bases thanks to lead-off man Rainess (37-for-44) and No. 2 hitter McDaniel (32-for-37). They are ranked first and second in the conference in stolen bases, respectively.

The defense is a little better than it was a year ago, posting a .970 fielding percentage, which is second best in the conference. It was .966 last season.

So if the pitching staff can throw strikes, their teammates should provide the run support and make the plays behind them. That kind of play would give the slugging team a great chance to emerge as champions and go to their first NCAA Tournament in more than a decade.