Can and will the University of Maine’s Black Bears win the NCAA’s Northeast Regional in Waterbury, Conn., and advance to the College World Series for the first time since 1986?
Yes, they can. But no, they won’t.
Let’s start by saying it would have been a travesty if Maine hadn’t been selected to an NCAA Regional and give plau- dits to the NCAA’s Tournament Selection Committee for bucking tradition and choosing an eastern team, Maine, for an at-large berth.
The three wins over Miami and three wins in the ECAC tourney sewed up the NCAA tourney berth for the 41-18 Black Bears, who are one of the top 48 teams in the nation. The fact they were seeded fourth in the Northeast Regional tells you that the selection committee held them in high regard despite their upset losses to Fordham in the finals.
It also reaffirmed how important Maine’s strong schedule, which included six NCAA Regional teams, was in the decision-making process.
Maine earned and deserved its seeding.
Rutgers and Maine were the only two Regional teams Fordham played; the teams on Fordham’s spring trip to Cocoa, Fla., were Millersville State (Pa.), Kutztown State (Pa.), Hobart (N.Y.), Northwood Institute (Mich.), North Central College (Ill.), Portland State and Brandeis.
That’s why Fordham is the sixth seed for the Midwest Regional in Wichita, Kan.
Maine Coach John Winkin and his players genuinely feel they can win the Northeast Regional.
But the pitching isn’t good enough to win a Regional.
The offensive balance and versatility is certainly good enough and the defense is very sound.
But pitching is the name of the game.
None of Maine’s pitchers, with the possible exception of lefty Larry Thomas, who has a vicious sharp-breaking curve, haa a genuine out pitch.
An out pitch is a pitch that hitters have trouble hitting hard even when they know it’s coming. It is a dominant pitch that can be thrown on any count.
Billy Swift had two out pitches, his nasty slider and 88 miles-per-hour sinker. That’s why Billy Swift is in the major leagues.
Steve Loubier had the great overhand curve; Jeff Plympton had the good slider; Joe Johnson and Scott Morse overpowered hitters with fastballs and when they had their breaking balls working, they were virtually unhittable.
The current Maine staff is comprised of overachievers who have been able to keep the ball down, as evidenced by the fact they have given up just 25 homers in 59 games, and use their competitiveness to make key pitches in crucial situations.
When their arms are tired or they get the ball up in the strike zone, they have trouble getting people out because they don’t have the out pitch. That was never more evident than it was against Fordham.
Maine’s veteran catchers, senior Craig Ender and junior Paul Kelliher, feel that the pitchers can get the job done in Waterbury.
“But they’ve got to pitch with confidence,” stressed Kelliher.
In looking at the six pitchers who are likely to see action, Ender and Kelliher outlined what each will need to do to be successful.
Jim Dillon: His sidearm fastball and slider have to be effective. He also has an overhand fastball and slider and a changeup.
Mike D’Andrea: He almost always hits spots with his fastball and changeup, but his curve is sometimes off and he will need that in Waterbury. “He’s also got to keep his fastball away from the middle of the plate,” said Kelliher.
Larry Thomas: The catchers said Thomas’ mind has to be focused on the game. They said when he loses his concentration, he gets his fastball up and he gets hit. He has a great pickoff move to go with his nasty curve and live fastball.
Ben Burlingame: His key is his slider. “If his slider is on, he’ll be tough to hit,” said Ender.
Chuck Nadeau: He has good movement on his fastball, but he has to have good bite on his curve and be able to get both pitches over the plate.
Rob Higgins: He has been getting his fastball out over the plate too much and his curve has been flattening out lately. He will have to spot his fastball better and regain the bite he had on his curve earlier in the year.
Gary Taylor also could figure in the bullpen plans if his arm stays healthy and he has the best fastball on the staff. He has to spot it, however.