The University of Maine baseball team traditionally measures success in conference championships and NCAA tournament berths.
By those standards, the 2008 season was a huge disappointment for the Black Bears.
Coach Steve Trimper’s team ended its season Saturday at Binghamton, finishing with a 20-28-1 record that left the Bears out of the America East playoffs for the first time since 2000.
UMaine failed to distinguish itself in any one facet of the game but was solid in all areas. The Bears went 8-15 in league play and finished last for the first time in program history.
“Our goal every year is to win the conference tournament and to win a [NCAA] regional, so anything less is not where we want to be,” Trimper said.
The Bears’ biggest shortcoming was their overall lack of experience. They utilized the services of 11 first-year Division I players, including positional starters Jarrett Lukas of Old Town, Tony Patane and pitchers Kevin Scanlan, Matt Jebb, Jimmy Cox, Kyle Benoit, Jon Balentina and Justin Latta.
There were five freshmen, two redshirt freshmen and six sophomores who played significant roles this season.
“We’ve got a lot of young players, a lot of good players,” Trimper said. “I think the biggest thing we have to do as a team is mature. They’ve got to learn how to win [close] baseball games.”
UMaine had a steady offense but struggled to get clutch hits. Senior first baseman Curt Smith set the tone, batting a career-best .403 with 11 home runs, 37 runs batted in and 60 runs scored. He became only the second Black Bear to reach 300 career hits, joining Mark Sweeney (328).
Sophomore catcher and designated hitter Myckie Lugbauer (.343, 5 HRs, team-high 43 RBIs, 12 stolen bases) continued his improvement, while junior center fielder Billy Cather (.328, 3 HRs, 25 RBIs, 15 stolen bases) was a two-way mainstay.
Lukas (.319, 4 HRs, 28 RBIs) debuted well at third base, junior outfielder Kevin McAvoy of Brewer (.301, 2 HRs, 25 RBIs) came on late in the season and sophomore transfer Tony Patane (.287, 3 HRs, 33 RBIs) was a defensive stalwart at shortstop.
Junior 2B Danny Menendez (.253, 20 RBIs, 10 SBs), senior OF Mark Ostrander (.286, 5 HRs, 17 RBIs), redshirt freshman OF Joey Martin of Portland (.286, 14 RBIs), sophomore utility player Kevin Jackson (.250, 1 HR, 12 RBIs), and soph C Joe Mercurio (.222, 2 HR, 15 RBIs) made key contributions.
The Bears’ hitting difficulties often came in key spots, with runners in scoring position.
“It felt like we were that one big hit, that one run, away [from winning],” Trimper said. “It led to so many ballgames where we didn’t get it done.”
UMaine batted .295 overall but hit only .276 in league games. The Bears dropped nine one-run decisions, including two in extra innings. They lost 19 games by three runs or less, including nine of their 15 conference defeats.
Four more America East wins would have put UMaine in the playoffs.
“We didn’t learn how to do that one little thing to win baseball games,” Trimper said.
The biggest challenge for Trimper and his staff was rebuilding the pitching staff. Among the nine pitchers who worked at least 15 innings, seven were underclassmen.
Righthander Joe Miller, a sophomore transfer, led the way with a 5-2 record and a 3.93 earned run average. He, along with freshmen Kevin Scanlan (2-5, 3.74, 72 strikeouts) and Matt Jebb (2-5, 4.57, 64Ks), combined for nine victories.
Freshmen Cox of Bangor (1-1, 4.37) and Kyle Benoit (3-1, 5.45) were key contributors out of the bullpen, while versatile junior Alejandro Balsinde (2-7, 6.26) was the leader among the few veterans.
The Bears ranked first in America East with 163 strikeouts in 179 2/3 innings, but also issued a league-high 99 walks.
Rather than get the chance to ease into the mix, most of the young pitchers inherited important roles. Some of them wore down a bit, especially mentally, late in the season.
“We’ve got a lot of returning guys and they’re going to come back a year stronger,” Trimper said. “We’re going to have a pretty good pitching staff, a deep pitching staff.”
UMaine’s fielding (.961) was more consistent, especially on the left side of the infield.
Trimper said coaching this year’s youthful squad forced him to take more of a nurturing approach to help the Bears shake off tough losses and maintain a positive attitude.
With only four seniors, two of them regulars, departing and a promising recruiting class on the way, Trimper is confident the Bears can return to their familiar role as a league power.
“I believe in the guys, our group,” Trimper said. “It’s not like we’re running out to find new players. We just have to be patient with them. We have the foundation of what is going to be a very strong team.”