Consistent, effective starting pitching has been the cornerstone of success for the University of Maine baseball program since its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s.
That important element, and pitching depth in general, was lacking during 2007.
It’s a key reason coach Steve Trimper’s Black Bears were unable to capture a third straight America East championship.
“Ninety-five percent of what we’ve got to improve on is on the mound,” Trimper said Saturday after UMaine’s season-ending, 13-4 loss to Binghamton in the America East playoffs in Farmingdale, N.Y.
The Bears overcame early-season struggles, during which they lost 17 of 18 games in one stretch, to post a 22-31 record, including a 12-11 league mark. However, that is the program’s worst record since 1996 and its first losing season since 1998.
“We feel like we underachieve if we don’t win this thing,” Trimper said of the AE title. “Our whole goal is to play in the postseason and keep playing.”
The Bears’ pitching will take a significant hit with the loss of two mainstays. Senior Greg Norton of South Portland (6-3) has graduated, while transfer lefthander Brad Hertzler (4-5) likely will sign a pro contract next month.
Among the returnees are righties Alejandro Balsinde, Mike Powers of Portland, Ryan Forrest, and Will Carroll, along with lefthanders Jose Mendoza and Mitch Clegg. Righty transfer Joel Thorney, who had another elbow surgery this spring, also should be ready.
That group combined to post an 11-20 record this season. Powers struggled as a starter and was moved to the bullpen, Balsinde went from closer to starter and faded late, and Mendoza couldn’t reprise a steady freshman campaign.
“We’ve got to pitch better. I can’t go through this [again],” said Trimper, who is optimistic about the nine pitchers he has recruited for 2008.
Among them are highly touted Canadian Kyle Benoit and Kyle Slate from New Jersey, both of whom are possible draftees. Trimper has signed three transfers with college experience.
UMaine loses two productive senior position players in first baseman Joel Barrett of Brewer and outfielder/catcher Matt McGraw. Barrett is among the top hitters in program history, while McGraw was a productive No. 2 hitter and base stealer.
The infield will be anchored by third baseman Curt Smith, steady second baseman Danny Menendez, and shortstop Brian Hackett of Bangor. Smith is draft-eligible but doesn’t plan to sign.
“I really don’t care about the money,” Smith said. “I want to finish school, so I think I’m coming back and leading my team.”
The Bears hope to end their recent trend of converting players into shortstops by welcoming some talented freshmen at that spot. Kevin Major of New Jersey and Old Town’s Jarrett Lukas are among the players who should compete for the job.
“We’re going to have some competition there,” Trimper said.
UMaine must make fewer errors on the left side of the infield and improve its range across the board.
Myckie Lugbauer returns at catcher but is likely to split time with University of Illinois transfer Joe Mercurio. Lugbauer also is a good first baseman, while veteran Bobby Brown could work into the mix at first if he can hit consistently.
“We just have to look at the freshmen coming in, how they’re going to help us, and how we’re going to get a team together and have a great season next year,” Smith said.
UMaine should have even more depth in the outfield, where starters Billy Cather and Brewer’s Kevin McAvoy, who also plays third, return. Kevin Jackson made a strong debut, Mark Ostrander lends experience, and Tavis Hasenfus of Winthrop also showed potential.
They’ll be joined by the likes of Connecticut transfer Matt Grosso and redshirt freshmen Matt Howard and Portland’s Joey Martin.
“Our outfield’s great,” Trimper said. “We redshirted a couple kids that are [good] ballplayers. That’s three good individuals that we’ve got returning with Jackson and Tavis and Billy.”
The Bears are expected to have 16 or 17 players involved in summer leagues. McAvoy is slated to play for the Chatham A’s of the prestigious Cape Cod League and Ostrander also may get a shot on the Cape.
Many will compete in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, as they did a year ago.
“It really starts in the summer. We’ve got to have a great summer, all of us,” said Cather, who will return to the Vermont Mountaineers of the NECBL. “We’ve just got to take what we learned this season into the summer and get better every day.”
UMAINE SEASON STATISTICS
Records – Overall: 22-31; America East: 12-11; Home: 9-5; Away: 5-19; Neutral: 8-7
Offense, UMaine/opponents – Average: .301/.320; Hits: 533/558; Home runs: 40/44; RBIs: 295/330; Slugging percentage: .440/.477
Pitching, UMaine/opponents – ERA: 5.97/5.18; Hits: 558/533; Runs: 353/319; Earned runs: 281/248; Walks: 168/173; Strikeouts: 327/314
Defense, UMaine/opponents – Errors: 70/77; Fielding percentage: .963/.959; Double plays: 38/41