ORONO — The University of Maine baseball team isn’t worried about what else can go wrong.
The way the Black Bears see it, they’ve already overcome it all in a 51-game season with enough bad vibes to last a lifetime.
Long stretches of losing during two early trips to the Deep South. An excruciating series of one-run defeats at the outset of America East Conference play. A starting shortstop suspended and a pitching coach dismissed as May arrived.
“Stuff like that can beat a team down, but I think with us it just brought us together closer,” shortstop Troy Black said. “We said, ‘Let’s just do this for us. Forget about all the noise.’ All the crazy stuff that’s happening? We get to go play baseball. So let’s just play our hearts out and see what we can do.”
Black was speaking just after a 2-1 loss in 12 innings to Maryland-Baltimore County on Sunday in the regular-season finale at Mahaney Diamond.
But there was a sense that the result was an anomaly, that the Black Bears (24-27) are finding themselves just in time for the conference tournament, which begins Thursday in Lowell, Massachusetts. For one thing, Maine had won its previous four games by a combined score of 44-7. For another, ace pitcher Tommy Lawrence has regained his form of a year ago, when he set a school record with 11 victories. He’s 8-4, with 90 strikeouts in 97 innings and a 3.17 ERA. He will get the ball in the playoff opener against Stony Brook at 2 p.m. Thursday.
Maine may have failed to defend its regular-season conference title, finishing just 10-11 in league play. But the Black Bears are eager to atone for last year’s postseason failure, when a 4-0 loss to Binghamton ended their season.
“It’s always in the back of my head,” Lawrence said. “Seeing the other team celebrate on the field was pretty brutal for us to watch.”
Maine got off to a 6-14 start this year. Conference play provided no relief as the Black Bears dropped five of their first six games, each by a lone run or in extra innings.
Hitters weren’t able to reach the power alleys in the outfield; fielders were struggling to make routine plays.
In May, shortstop Shane Bussey was suspended for the season for violating team rules. Pitching coach Jason Spaulding was told his contract was not being renewed and abruptly was no longer part of the team.
Black moved from his natural position of second base to shortstop. Alex Calbick slid from third base to second, and Luke Morrill joined the lineup at third base.
The Black Bears started crushing the baseball, averaging 8.3 runs in their last seven games.
The fielders were more sure-handed as well. Maine has committed only three errors in its last 11 games, after fumbling its way to 58 in the first 40 games. On Sunday, the Black Bears made a half-dozen highlight-reel plays in the field, including a pair by Black.
Coach Steve Trimper has been pleased with his team’s response to some dark moments. But he suggested better weather also played a part.
“I swear, we’d been doing everything right. We’d been hitting barrels, we just couldn’t get anything in the gaps,” he said.
“Once the weather warmed up, our bats started to warm up a little bit. Guys have been able to hunt out fastballs when they’ve been throwing them to us.”
Scott Heath of Westbrook has been the hottest hitter, with 17 extra-base hits and a team-high 27 RBI despite playing only 41 games. The left-handed pitcher figures to get the start in Game 2 of the double-elimination conference tournament, now that the stress fracture he suffered after fouling a ball off his foot has fully healed.
That will put Shaun Coughlin back in the bullpen, where he’s been most comfortable.
Now that late May has arrived, Trimper is also comfortable with his lineup.
“The energy’s great with this team,” he said. “Don’t be surprised if these guys go out there and just keep on going.
“They have that never-say-die attitude.”
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: