ORONO – As a 9-year-old, Joe Miller put most of his energy and enthusiasm into playing hockey.
“I love hockey to death,” Miller said. “If I could play it still, I would.”
And while one might occasionally find Miller skating in Alfond Arena, it is on the pitcher’s mound where he has excelled.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound righthander toes the rubber today at 4 p.m. when the University of Maine opens a four-game America East series against Albany with a doubleheader at Mahaney Diamond.
“He’s been a pleasant surprise and the surprising part is that he has been very consistent and we’re excited about that,” said UMaine coach Steve Trimper.
The sophomore from Valley Stream, N.Y., was hounded by a friend’s dad into trying baseball as a third-grader. Miller agreed, reluctantly, to give it shot.
“I got pretty much dragged into it and it played out in my favor,” said Miller, who has emerged as the Black Bears’ go-to guy.
Miller takes a 3-1 record and a conference-best 2.70 earned run average into today’s action. He has allowed 31 hits (27 singles) in 40 innings, striking out 31 and walking 18.
Opponents are batting .211 against Miller, a mark that also leads America East pitchers. He has averaged 6 2/3 innings per start and a conference-low seven hits per outing.
“He’s a full package as far as getting himself mentally and physically prepared,” Trimper said. “He’s very competitive. He gives us a great opportunity to win.”
Miller was a late addition to the UMaine roster last summer. He pitched only 8 2/3 innings as a freshman at Division I High Point (N.C.) University.
“It wasn’t a good situation for me there,” admitted Miller.
A few years earlier, he played summer ball with catcher Joe Mercurio, who transferred to UMaine last spring from Illinois. Mercurio’s father Joe, who had coached Miller, steered him toward UMaine.
Miller visited the campus with his parents in August and liked what he saw.
UMaine sought another pitcher after highly touted recruit Kyle Slate signed late with the Philadelphia Phillies.
“At that time of year, it’s not like you’re going to fill the spot with a front-line guy – you don’t think,” Trimper said.
Trimper, who knew of Miller previously, went to see him pitch last summer with the Rockville Express of the Cal Ripken Sr. League in Maryland.
“He kind of made the commitment because he just wanted a place where he felt like he had a shot at pitching,” Trimper said. “We gave him that opportunity.”
Everything has fallen into place nicely for Miller, who has found UMaine a great fit.
“I think it was a really easy adjustment here,” Miller said. “I love all the kids on this team. It’s the nicest group of kids that I’ve ever played with.”
Miller has a sinking fastball in the 88-91 mph range, but also possesses a good changeup, a curveball and a cut fastball/slider.
“I personally think my changeup’s my best pitch. I love going to it, but the slider’s probably right behind it,” Miller said.
Miller credited Bill Sizemore, a coach with Rockville, with helping him improve his stuff, especially the slider.
“He’s one of the best coaches I have ever talked to in my life,” Miller said. “The things this guy was showing me just clicked.”
Miller has been a tone-setter for the Bears. He has excelled pitching the first game of a weekend series and has the demeanor of a No. 1 starter.
That has been important to a staff that includes three freshman starters pitching behind him.
“It’s nice to see that the other guys are kind of following in what Joe’s laid down and hopefully they build off each other and it bodes well for the future,” Trimper said.
Miller has enjoyed taking a leading role this season – especially after a frustrating experience at High Point.
“In high school, I was always that guy,” Miller said. “I just try to do the best I can. The batters have to beat me, that’s how I look at it.”