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Stingy starting pitching has been the cornerstone of success for the University of Maine baseball team in its drive to back-to-back America East championships.
So far this season, that important element has been lacking, which helps explain why the Black Bears have struggled.
Coach Steve Trimper’s team, which is coming off a four-game America East sweep at the hands of Stony Brook, returned to Orono with a 5-19 record.
“We did not play well and we have to get it going,” Trimper said Monday after the Bears were swept in a four-game conference series for the first time since 1998 at Vermont.
The start is the program’s worst since UMaine lost its first 22 games in 1996, coach John Winkin’s final season.
The Bears have dropped eight straight and 17 of 18.
Trimper said the team’s inability to get consistently good starts has been a big factor in the Bears’ difficulties.
“We’re not pitching well,” he said. “We’re not that far off; we’ve got to simplify things. We need to hit our spots and not miss up [in the strike zone].”
UMaine’s starting pitchers are averaging 4 2/3 innings per appearance and have compiled a 5-13 record with six “no decisions.” The starters are 1-11 with all six no decisions since the team got off to a 4-2 start.
Senior Greg Norton of South Portland owns two victories, but has a 7.62 earned run average. Junior transfer Brad Hertzler has drawn some of the tougher assignments and is 0-3 with a 5.52 ERA.
At Stony Brook, Hertzler, Norton and A.J. Balsinde each worked at least six innings in their starts. However, they had control issues that resulted in giving up too many runs.
“We’ve just got to get better on the mound,” Trimper said. “That’s our No. 1 focus right now.”
Balsinde made his first career start Sunday in place of Portland’s Mike Powers, who was sidelined with the flu. Balsinde, normally the closer, was solid in taking the loss.
When starters struggle, the defense commits errors and UMaine gets behind early, it causes numerous problems.
“Your pitchers set the tone of the game both mentally and physically and that’s something that he have to do, particularly now,” Trimper said. “We can’t chase. We’ve got to be in [the games] early.”
Trimper isn’t too concerned about the Bears’ offense, which averaged only three runs per game at Stony Brook. He admits the defense has to improve after committing nine errors last weekend.
In spite of it all, Trimper is certain the Bears’ pitching is going to improve and help the team get things turned around.
“It’s just going to take one guy to step up and win and that should lead us to a roll,” he said.
And UMaine needs to re-establish its collective self-confidence after the prolonged rough stretch.
“We have all the faces in place to do special things but it’s not going to happen unless we believe in ourselves,” Trimper said. “We’ll come out of this thing. We’ve hit a low point and now we’ve got to start peaking.
“Everybody gets put in adverse situations and you’ve got to be persistent,” he added.
UMaine may remain on the road
UMaine had hoped to play its first home games of the season this week, including a Wednesday nonleague game against Brown at Sanford.
With several inches of snow still on the ground, that contest has been canceled and the Bears’ four-game America East home series against Maryland Baltimore County likely will be played somewhere other than Mahaney Diamond in Orono.
“It’s completely covered [with snow],” Trimper said of Mahaney Diamond. “I highly doubt if we’d play here this weekend.”
UMaine is trying to find an alternative site that might enable it to play its games somewhere other than Baltimore. Trimper said UMaine administrators are discussing the situation with America East officials in the hope of reaching some compromise.
Winkin Complex at Husson College in Bangor might be a possibility, although the Eagles already have a home doubleheader scheduled for Sunday and may have other games to make up.
In the past, the Bears have played at neutral sites both on Cape Cod and in Rhode Island.
“I don’t want to tax the kids too much, with the traveling that we’ve been doing [24 straight games away from Orono to start the season],” Trimper said.
“I want us to have a little comfort zone. We’ll play in the parking lot if we need to,” he joked.
Likewise, UMaine’s home-opening softball doubleheader Wednesday against Boston University has been moved to Boston.
Coach Stacey Sullivan’s Bears expect to be able to get onto Kessock Field for their four-game America East weekend series against Hartford.