GORHAM — Ed Flaherty took a minute to warm up to the question.

How does his 2019 University of Southern Maine pitching staff stack up against his best in 34 seasons as the Huskies’ baseball coach?

At first, Flaherty says he’s had some groups with more top-end talent. After all, his teams have made 24 NCAA postseason appearances and won Division III national titles in 1991 and 1997. He makes sure to credit longtime pitching coach Ed Boyce for their development.

Then Flaherty considers that this year’s staff has a combined ERA of 3.20. Opponents are batting .210 against USM, which leads all D-III schools in fewest hits allowed per nine innings (6.83).

USM junior Ben Lambert takes an 8-0 record and 1.31 ERA into the postseason. Lambert went to Thornton Academy. Bryan Klabik photo

Against each of his top four pitchers – ace starter Ben Lambert, top setup man Henry Curran, versatile starter/reliever Tanner Laberge, and shutdown All-American closer Jake Dexter – batters are hitting .170 or less.

“The stats of the pitchers are unbelievable,” Flaherty said. “Could I say that we’re better? Talent-wise? Well, you’d have to say, yeah, when you consider the whole depth of the staff.

“My bullpen is the best in the nation. It’s the best back end of a staff I’ve ever had.”

Combine that staff with an offense averaging 7.5 runs per game and second-ranked USM (32-5) is capable of a lengthy postseason run. It begins Wednesday as the top seed and host of the six-team Little East Conference tournament. USM opens the tournament at noon against No. 6 Castleton University.

With an NCAA berth virtually guaranteed based on their ranking, the Huskies don’t have to win the Little East title and its automatic tournament bid. But this year the NCAA format has changed. The 58-team field, to be announced on Monday, will feature 16 regional sites. The regional winners will advance to eight “super regional” best-of-three series. Being the conference champ would increase the likelihood of USM hosting a regional and, if they advance, a super regional.

The eight super-regional winners will compete in the double-elimination national finals in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, beginning May 31.

“I think we’ve got a good run at the national championship this year and I think we’re all on the same page,” said Curran, a senior from South Portland. “I think we all know it. We’re going to do whatever it takes to get there.”

Curran (3-0, one save, 1.64 ERA) has become a key bridge from the starters to Dexter. A former starter who had arm trouble, Curran was ready to give up the game after his sophomore season when he discovered he could throw without pain by switching to a sidearm delivery.

Lambert, a junior from Saco (Thornton Academy) is 8-0, leads the team in innings and has a 1.31 ERA. Opponents are hitting .161 against his mix of a power fastball, over-the-top curve and change-up and his willingness to throw any pitch in any situation.

“Last year it was more I was trying to blow it by everybody on every pitch,” Lambert said. “This year it’s more, I’m trying to get people out.”

Jake Dexter is USM baseball’s top hitter and its shutdown closer. Bryan Klabik photo

Dexter is the team’s linchpin. The two-time All-American from Oakland (Messalonskee High) is the team’s starting second baseman and leading hitter (.390). As the closer, throwing what Flaherty calls a “turbo sinker” in the high 80s, he has given up 15 hits and two walks in 25 innings.

“It just sinks,” Flaherty said. “I don’t even know how he does it. He’s the best player in Division III when you put both together, I think.”

Bob Prince (1990-92) is the only USM player to be a three-time All-American. Dexter is likely to become the second.

“I really don’t care, dude. I wish it wasn’t even a thing, to be honest,” Dexter said. “I don’t think All-American matters much. I just hope we win the whole thing.”

Southern Maine is a homegrown team. Twenty-three of the 31 players are from Maine. Among the pitchers, Mainers have thrown 93.4 percent of the innings and accounted for every decision and save.

Windham’s Laberge (4-0, .170 opponent average) has been effective in relief and as a spot starter. Colton Lawrence’s numbers aren’t quite as impressive (4.63 ERA) but down the stretch the Mt. Blue product has become the sixth-inning guy.

Deering product James Sinclair (4-0, 3.38 ERA), Washington Academy’s Gage Feeney (6-1, 3.71 ERA) and Messalonskee’s Joshua Joy (4-1, 4.03 ERA) are solid starters. They have helped USM cope with injuries that have limited the effectiveness of erstwhile ace Dalton Rice (1-2, 4.86 ERA), who played at Oxford Hills.

“It definitely makes it special,” Curran said of the in-state bond. “A lot of us grew up together. A lot of us played Tomahawks AAU baseball together when we were 14, 15 years old.”

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