ORONO — Josh Loeffler, a right fielder for the University of Albany, took two steps backward, then turned and watched Joe Bramanti’s 14th home run of the season fly over the Mahaney Diamond wall. Bramanti trotted around the bases, and his Maine teammates and fans cheered.

It’s been a renaissance spring for the Black Bears. After playing mediocre baseball for much of the past decade, the Black Bears are back at the top of the America East standings. Saturday’s 7-5 win over the Great Danes pushed Maine’s record to 26-16, including a 21-5 mark in conference play and a 14-game winning streak that stretched from April 9 to May 6.

This season’s success harkens back to when the Black Bears were one of the top college baseball programs in the Northeast, year after year. Maine has already ensured its first winning season since 2013, and as the top seed and host of the America East tournament May 26-29, the Black Bears can earn their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2011, when they went 1-2 at the regional in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Maine baseball coach Nick Derba greets second baseman Quinn McDaniel after his game-tying home run versus UMass Lowell on May 8. McDaniel, of Eliot, leads the Black Bears with a .333 batting average. Photo courtesy of UMaine athletics

“We clinched first place, but I told our guys, these last two weekends, we’ve got to win our games for the regular season, then take care of the conference tournament,” said Nick Derba, in his fifth season as Maine’s head coach.

Stony Brook (19-7 in conference play), winner of six America East championships since 2004, will not participate in the conference tournament after announcing it will join the Colonial Athletic Association next year.

Maine was 3-11 after opening the season with a tough nonconference schedule that began with a trip to perennial national power LSU and included games with Penn State, George Washington, North Dakota State and Stetson.

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“I think we just started playing a very well-rounded game. At first, it was like our offense was carrying us and we were winning a lot of games. We were putting up like 15 runs per game. Then we started to figure it out, pitching-wise,” said starting pitcher Trevor LaBonte, a York native who improved to 5-3 by throwing seven strong innings in a 4-2 win over Albany on Friday.

A big improvement came defensively, Derba said. Errors cost the Black Bears a few nonconference wins. The Black Bears lost the opener of a three-game series against Penn State, 4-3, on a throwing error in the bottom of the ninth, and Maine committed three errors in a 12-4 loss to George Washington.

On Saturday against Albany, Maine played flawless defense for the fourth time in its last five games.

“That was the most frustrating part for me. Literally walk-off errors in two games,” Derba said. “It’s important to learn how not to win games, too. Playing a lesser schedule, things can get passed over. We’ve got to play really clean baseball in order to win.”

Success has come in conference play with a stable trio of starters, none of whom were with the Black Bears last season. LaBonte (5-3, 4.09 ERA), who starts Friday conference games, is a graduate transfer from the University of Maryland. Sunday starter Brett Erwin (2-3, 4.20 ERA) is a grad transfer from Cal-Davis. Caleb Leys is a freshman. Derba said at the start of the season he didn’t know what he had in each of them.

“We really didn’t have two of the three guys in the starting rotation at the beginning of the year. I didn’t expect Trevor LaBonte to come on as strong as he has. We thought he would be a lockdown back-end of the bullpen guy,” Derba said. “Caleb Leys is the guy we weren’t sure where he was going to be. Quite frankly, he had a terrible fall. We were like, he’ll be good at some point, but probably not this year.”

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Pitching in 90 degree heat on Saturday afternoon, Leys allowed one run over five innings before giving way to South Portland’s Noah Lewis, who went three innings for the win. A starter much of last season, Lewis and Brewer’s Matthew Pushard (nine saves) have been solid in the bullpen.

LaBonte hadn’t started since his freshman season at Maryland.

“I think I’ve been able to rely on my slider in a lot of counts and throw it for strikes whenever I want to. That’s helped me keep hitters off balance,” he said. “It was definitely an adjustment going from the bullpen to starting. When you’re a reliever, you can kind of come in and blow it up. When you’re a starter, you’ve got to think about throwing 95-plus pitches.”

Offensively, Quinn McDaniel has been a catalyst. Batting third in the lineup and starting all 42 games, the Marshwood High grad and second baseman from Eliot leads the Black Bears with a .333 average, to go with eight home runs and 39 runs batted in. McDaniel’s two-run home run Friday gave Maine the lead in what became a 4-2 win over Albany.

McDaniel said he’s taking a smarter approach at the plate, including a decreased strikeout rate. As a freshman last season, McDaniel fanned 31 percent of the time (48 times in 153 at-bats). This season, McDaniel has struck out 38 times in 171 at-bats, 22 percent of the time.

“I’m going up there trying to do damage, and trying to make midgame adjustments if I have to. Overall, I’m trying to look for a pitch to hit early and hit it as hard as I can,” said McDaniel, who drove in a run Saturday with a sacrifice fly to right field. “I’ve definitely evolved a lot as a player. Last year, I go back and watch sometimes, and my approach was really nonexistent, and it showed with my strikeout numbers. I just went up there and didn’t really think at all.”

Hitting cleanup, Bramanti has been a power threat with his 14 home runs and 57 RBI. Leadoff hitter Jordan Schulefand (.333, 38 runs) and Scout Knotts (40 runs, 26 RBI) also have big offensive producers.

“We’ve swung the bats pretty well, and controlled mistakes. We’re playing the simplest form of the game at a high level,” Derba said.


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