The Eastern League became stronger when the poorly attended franchise in Norwich, Conn., moved to Richmond, Va., a former Triple-A city.

And sure enough, the Richmond Flying Squirrels draw the second-biggest crowds in the league, with a 6,424 average heading into this weekend. (Reading leads with an average of 6,582 and Portland is third at 5,767.)

But replacing a New England city with a Southern city has not made a smooth transition for the schedule, especially with a league spread down the East Coast and west to Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

“It was definitely more of a challenge,” Eastern League President Joe McEachern said.

The challenge has been to distribute the travel as equally as possible.

Portland is the northernmost team, so it can expect to travel more. New Hampshire is 100 miles away and New Britain is 210, but then the trips expand to Binghamton, N.Y. (360), Trenton, N.J. (360), and Reading, Pa. (420).

And those are just the teams in the East Division.

Portland has only three games in Richmond (this weekend), but it is how the league schedule maker adjusted the schedule that made it tough on the Sea Dogs.

Here was one stretch:

May 23 in Portland; May 24-27 in Reading; May 28-31 in Portland; June 1-3 in Trenton; June 4-6 in Portland; June 8 in Erie, Pa.

And the games May 27 at Reading and June 3 at Trenton were played in the evening, giving the Sea Dogs all-night bus rides before their next series.

Portland played only three series in Manchester, where the Sea Dogs are a popular draw, and the Fisher Cats come to Hadlock Field for only two series this season, the same number as the Harrisburg Senators.

McEachern knows there is no way to please all teams when it comes to the schedule, but allowed that the schedule was “less than ideal. … Hopefully we’ll get better with it.” 

THE 2011 SCHEDULE may see some improvement for the road-weary Sea Dogs.

The Fisher Cats became the first league team to release its schedule for next season. New Hampshire plays host to the Sea Dogs four times (14 games) and comes to Hadlock for three series (12 games).

The Sea Dogs have not released their schedule. Based on the league’s every-other-year policy on season openers, we know Portland will open the season at Hadlock Field on April 7.

And the 12 home dates against the Fisher Cats are May 23-26, June 30-July 4, and Sept. 2-5. 

PERSEVERANCE IS a must in the minor leagues. Ask Blake Maxwell.

Maxwell, 26, was a versatile pitcher for Portland last year, appearing in 32 games with 18 starts.

His trademarks were a durable arm and his sprints to the mound when called from the bullpen.

In the spring, Maxwell appeared set to return to Portland but was sent down to advanced Class A Salem when the season began.

“It was a mental and emotional struggle,” Maxwell said. “I had to focus on the goal and the task at hand, to get better every day, to continue to get guys out no matter where I am.”

Maxwell compiled a 2.66 ERA in Salem, usually pitching multiple innings in relief.

He was sent to Portland during the all-star break and has pitched well.

Maxwell is again mixing in starts with relief outings. In his last start on Thursday, Maxwell allowed no earned runs over five innings in a victory.

He is 4-0 for Portland with a 2.08 ERA.

Maxwell went 0-5 to open last season with the Sea Dogs. Since then, he is 11-3 in Double-A.

And, yes, Maxwell still sprints in from the bullpen. 

THIS WEEK, the Sea Dogs are home Tuesday through Sunday, with day games Thursday (noon) and Sunday (1 p.m.)

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

[email protected]