LOWELL, Mass. – If there was any rust from the University of Maine’s early clinching of the America East regular- season title, the Black Bears wasted little time in knocking it off.
They rapped out six hits in the first inning of their tournament opener and rode the stellar pitching of Tommy Lawrence to a convincing 7-0 victory over No. 4 Stony Brook Wednesday afternoon at LeLacheur Park.
The top-seeded Black Bears (35-20) advance to a winners’ bracket final of the four-team, double-elimination tournament, scheduled for 8 p.m. Thursday against Binghamton, which beat Albany, 9-0.
Defending champion Stony Brook (24-33), which last spring became the first America East team to reach the College World Series, will play an elimination game Thursday against the Albany-Binghamton loser.
“Once they made the tournament I was like, ‘Uh-oh,”‘ said Maine Coach Steve Trimper. “They’ve been there before, they’ve got some great players and I thought this was going to be a very big hurdle for us.”
Instead, the Black Bears pounced on Stony Brook ace Frankie Vanderka (8-4), who beat them earlier this season.
Troy Black singled with one out, stole second and went to third when Stony Brook center fielder Joshua Mason couldn’t handle Michael Fransoso’s sinking liner. Alex Calbick and Eric White followed with RBI singles for a 2-0 lead.
Designated hitter Scott Heath of Westbrook slapped a two-out, two-run single off the glove of diving shortstop Cole Peragine and into center field to make it 4-0.
“It took the pressure off us and put the pressure on them,” Trimper said. “The way everybody has pretty good pitching, sometimes four runs feels like 400 runs. Especially with the way these (modified) bats are nowadays, it’s not easy to have a high-scoring game.”
Certainly not with Lawrence (10-2) on the mound. He made quick work of the Seawolves, holding them to two hits in a complete-game shutout that required only 104 pitches. He walked two, struck out six and finished the game in 1 hour, 56 minutes.
“When he goes out there we know we’re going to get a good performance,” said shortstop and team captain Fransoso. “Our defense knows he’s going to put the ball in play. He’s not going to walk too many guys, which is good, because guys stay on their toes.”
Indeed, the Black Bears turned two doubles plays to help make up for three errors, two of them on rushed throws. Five times Lawrence faced the minimum of three batters per inning. He also retired the leadoff batter in every inning except the fourth, when Fransoso couldn’t find a grip on a slow roller to short.
“I felt like I was throwing pretty good,” said Lawrence, who tied a school record for victories set by Billy Swift and tied by several others. “I had good command of my breaking balls … and the defense played great behind me. I give all the credit to them.”
The complete-game shutout was the first in tournament play since Mike Aguilera of Binghamton blanked Maine 6-0 in 2010.
“This is my 20th year of coaching college and he’s the biggest bulldog I’ve ever coached,” Trimper said of his ace. “I’ve had some great ones, but if there’s a guy I want in a big game, it’s him.”
In the fifth, White removed any doubt with a three-run homer to make it 7-0. It was his team-leading sixth of the season and raised his batting average to .335.
A part-time player for two seasons, the junior third baseman from Brewer has blossomed this spring.
“It’s just being more comfortable at the plate and being confident in my swing,” White said, “trying to drive balls instead of just trying to put balls in play.”
“He’s hot,” said catcher Mike Connolly of White. “That was a hanging breaking ball that he put on a line (over the fence in left). It might have gotten out of here in two seconds.”
The Black Bears collected 14 hits against three Stony Brook pitchers. Black, Fransoso, Calbick, White, Heath and Connolly each had two. Brian Doran and Sam Balzano had the others.
“It’s huge getting that first win out of the way but we know we’re not done yet,” Fransoso said. “Once you get that first one out of the way, then the second one is huge because the winner goes to the championship and (must be) beaten twice.”
The tournament winner receives an automatic berth into the 64-team field of the NCAA Division I tournament.
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at firstname.lastname@example.org