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UMaine steps up to the plate: Top-seeded Black Bears play host to America East baseball tourney

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UMaine's Joe Bramanti at the plate. UMaine's Joe Bramanti at the plate. (Photo courtesy Seth Poplaski/UMaine Athletics)

ORONO – The University of Maine is ready to take us all out to the ballgame.

Orono is playing host to the America East baseball tournament for the first time since 2018, and the top-seeded Black Bears are looking to continue their conference dominance and make their way to the NCAAs.

Coach Nick Derba’s squad has put together one hell of a season – and it’s not over yet.

Starting on May 25 and running through May 28, Mahaney Diamond will feature nine or 10 games, with the ultimate prize being an America East title and a shot at an NCAA regional. The first three days will feature three games a day (the host Black Bears have their first game at 11 a.m. on May 26, just FYI – we’ve included a schedule as part of this story), with Saturday offering one or two, depending on how the rest of the tourney shakes out.

Now I – TME editor Allen Adams – am a big fan of baseball. However, I also recognize that when it comes to the college game, my analytic skills (such as they are) are not nearly up to the task. And so, I reached out to someone far more capable and far more familiar with the UMaine season specifically and the AE baseball landscape in general to give you – the reader – what you need.

In an effort to deliver some top-notch analysis of what’s to come, I asked Bryan Stackpole, local sports broadcaster extraordinaire, to put something together for us. And reader, you’ll be glad that I did, because Mr. Stackpole has assembled an outstanding look at UMaine and the other teams in the tournament. If you’re looking for a crash course on the AE tournament, you’ve come to the right place – Stack has taken care of you. This isn’t the first time he has brought his breadth of knowledge to our pages – he worked on a World Cup preview for us a few years back that was exceptional, just as one example – but this is as good as it gets.

Take it away, Stack.

#1 MAINE BLACK BEARS

For the first time since 2018, Mahaney Diamond will be hosting the America East Playoffs and the Maine Black Bears are the odds on favorite to punch a ticket to a NCAA Regional for the first time since 2011.

Last year, the Black Bears made a truncated postseason field of only four teams due to the limitations of a full season in the midst of a pandemic. Maine made some noise last season, upsetting UAlbany before losing on a walk-off to eventual champions NJIT and then Stony Brook in an elimination game. The 2021 edition of the Black Bears were led by record-breaking pitcher Nick Sinacola who set the program’s single season strikeout record before being drafted in the seventh round by the San Francisco Giants. This version of Maine’s team in 2022 is a more balanced unit that has used the lessons of the past to get this opportunity to win the conference crown in their own backyard in Orono.

Maine struggled out of the gate this season with a 3-11 record, facing some of the top teams in the nation like LSU out of the SEC and perennial NCAA contenders Stetson, led by former Maine Head Coach Steve Trimper. Those struggles would dissipate once the America East conference slate began as the Black Bears ran through teams on way to a league leading 21 wins and the top spot in the upcoming tournament held in their backyard. Among the highlights this season are an impressive 14-game winning streak (tied for the eighth longest in the NCAA this year) and a huge 18-7 victory over Boston College out of the ACC last week. The Black Bears did struggle in the final four conference games, losing to UAlbany in the series finale in Orono and getting swept in Hartford this past weekend, but all that was a moot point since Maine had already wrapped up the top seed in the America East weeks prior.

The Black Bears are led by a daunting batting order that features Maine native Quinn McDaniel hitting in the heart of the lineup. The second baseman from Elliot is in the top 10 in the conference in walks, hits, slugging percentage, runs batted in, home runs, stolen bases and leads the league in runs scored. Joe Bramanti is the power bat, hitting in the cleanup spot for Maine and is tied for the most home runs in the America East with 15. Bramanti belted three home runs with 12 runs batted in during a three-game set against tournament foe UMBC earlier this season and can carry the Bears in these playoffs if he finds his form this week. The graduate student has developed into a leader on this team and has grown leaps and bounds from a freshman season that had Bramanti pondering his Division I dreams with the Black Bears. Another key offensive player to watch is Jordan Schulefand, who came to the Black Bears this season after a transfer from Richmond. A former two-sport athlete for the Spiders (baseball and football), Schulefand has been the sparkplug for the team and is third in the conference in batting average and on base percentage, while leading the team with 25 stolen bases. He’s also been a valuable two-way player for Maine with five wins on the mound in ten appearances.

Speaking of the pitching staff, the Black Bears might not have a lights-out ace like they did a year ago, but they’ve got three solid starters in Caleb Leys, Trevor Labonte and Brett Erwin. Leys has already picked up two America East weekly honors and is fourth in the league in ERA. Labonte, hailing from York, Maine, is the workhorse pitcher with the seventh most innings logged in the conference with a 5-4 record. The UC Davis transfer Erwin has made a big impact as well with a 4.46 ERA over 13 starts. Brewer native Matthew Pushard has been dominant in his role as the closer, with a league-leading nine saves and 43 strikeouts in 29 innings pitched.

Maine has been susceptible to defensive miscues at times and have shown a bit of a penchant for needing to erase large deficits on their way to wins, but the Black Bears should absolutely still be viewed as the odds-on favorites to hoist the championship trophy come Saturday afternoon. Head Coach Nick Derba, in his fifth year at the helm, is excited about his team and you can understand why. Derba and his team mentioned that they had gotten accustomed to losing in the early years of his tenure, but over the last two seasons the Black Bears have piled up victories and could be on the precipice of ending that long title drought.

One thing is for certain, after only having four teams in the postseason field a year ago and having the championship game cancelled due to inclement weather, it’ll be great to have six teams vying to take home the crown again in the expanding field and a great opportunity for baseball fans to see some of the best baseball players in the Northeast this week.

BEST PLAYER: Quinn McDaniel

BEST PITCHER: Caleb Leys

DARK HORSE/IMPACT PLAYER: Jordan Schulefand

#2 BINGHAMTON BEARCATS

The Binghamton Bearcats were projected to finish near the top of the standings in the preseason poll, but ran into some struggles in the early conference slate. Binghamton lost seven of their first nine conference games and looked like they might be battling for one of the final spots in the field, but a strong close and a competitive conference allowed them to sneak into the two seed and a crucial bye in the tournament. With their strong pitching staff – led by ace Thomas Babalis – the Bearcats have the aura of a team that could potentially go on a magical run. Babalis is a two-time all-conference pitcher that has the third-most strikeouts and innings pitched in the league. Former starter Jack Collins has transitioned into the closer role and compiled six saves and a 2.33 ERA. Hitting has been a bit of a weak spot for Binghamton, as they are near the bottom of almost every team statistic on the offensive side, but shortstop Jake Evans has been a bright spot with the second-best batting average in the league. The biggest edge for Binghamton is their Head Coach Tim Sinicki who has been named the Coach of the Year six times in his 30-year career. This isn’t the strongest team Binghamton has had, but with four titles, a veteran coaching staff and a first-round bye, this is a team that could upend the Black Bears’ quest to take the title.

BEST PLAYER: Jake Evans

BEST PITCHER: Thomas Babalis

DARK HORSE/IMPACT PLAYER: Jack Collins

#3 NJIT HIGHLANDERS

The cancellation of the championship game last season marred an otherwise memorable season for the reigning America East champions. NJIT is loaded up again this season and have been an impressive team all season long. Struggles to close out the season allowed Binghamton to snag the second seed and forced NJIT to play on Wednesday in the first round after the Highlanders lost 10 of the final 15 conference games. NJIT hangs their hat on an impressive defense that is second in the conference, as well as their top pitching. Their staff is led by talented junior Ryan Fischer who through 14 starts put up a conference leading 82 strikeouts and seven wins. The offensive side is very dangerous, led by brothers David and Julio Marcano, who play the middle infield for the Highlanders. David has the third-most hits in the America East and put up 20 stolen bases, while Julio leads the league in doubles with 22 in total. Paul Franzoni is another big bat in the lineup with 12 home runs and 42 runs batted in, but he does strikeout frequently – 52 so far on the season. Head Coach Robbie McClellan is in his fourth season at the helm of the program and knows his way around the game of baseball, playing for Arizona State during his playing days before getting drafted by the Kansas City Royals; he even played with former Boston Red Sox great Dustin Pedroia during his time with the Sun Devils. Having to play one extra game in the tournament will be a tough task for NJIT, but the Highlanders have done nothing but win in the America East since joining the conference in 2020.

BEST PLAYER: David Marcano

BEST PITCHER: Ryan Fischer

DARK HORSE/IMPACT PLAYER: Paul Franzoni

#4 UMASS LOWELL RIVER HAWKS

The River Hawks have an extremely balanced squad, one that can beat any team in the field on any given day. UMass Lowell have a winning record versus every team in the playoffs outside of NJIT (1-2) and Maine (2-4), but did take a weekend series versus the Black Bears earlier this month in Massachusetts. The River Hawks lead the conference in hits this season and have a robust batting order led by freshman Jacob Hamphrey and senior Robert Gallagher. Humphrey will make his return to his home state for the tournament after playing his high school ball for Bonny Eagle. He has earned three America East Rookie of the Week honors this year and leads the conference with 45 stolen bases. Humphrey also is the in the top-ten in average, on base percentage, runs, hits and walks, which is certainly impressive at this level, especially for a guy in just his first season. Gallagher does anything to reach base, including a league leading 23 hit by pitches. When he does reach base Gallagher is also a threat as he also has compiled an impressive 36 stolen bases and transitioned that into the sixth-most runs in the league. UML leads America East in ERA and are led by LJ Keevan, Joshua Becker and Ryan Towle. The trio have combined for 237 innings and 14 wins. Becker is the workhorse of the trio with a league high 87 innings pitched and has limited the opposition to just 24 walks on the year. His only problem has been some sporadic wildness with 10 wild pitches this season. Head Coach Ken Herring is in his 18th season with UML and has had a great baseball career, even playing in the Atlanta Braves organization in his younger years under former Red Sox skipper Grady Little. The River Hawks have to be hopeful about their chances with a balanced squad, deep pitching, and confidence in winning each of the past four America East series entering these playoffs.

BEST PLAYER: Robert Gallagher

BEST PITCHER: Joshua Becker

DARK HORSE/IMPACT PLAYER: Jacob Humphrey

#5 UMBC RETRIEVERS

The UMBC Retrievers weren’t sure they would be in the field of six in early April after losing seven of their first 11 games in the America East, but were able to rattle off a respectable 7-12 record to close out the slate to make it to the five seed. The Retrievers aren’t known for the long ball and have a league-low 31 homers on the year, but play a great style of small ball that has led to success this season. Second baseman Myles Nicholson has been a great example of this approach as he leads the conference with a .387 batting average and sits second-best in on-base percentage. Couple that with 29 stolen bases and you see why Nicholson is the complete package for the Retrievers. Outfielder Ian Diaz has been a great table setter for UMBC with a league-leading performance in walks with 32; he has been crucial for this team’s success. The pitching staff hasn’t compiled the best numbers in the league, but it does sport two of AE’s best starters in Luke Johnson and Jayden Shertel. Johnson has the best ERA with a 3.69 mark for the year, while Shertel is eighth in the league in ERA and has the tenth-best batting average against. Head Coach Liam Bowen is in just his third season as the top man after being elevated to the role in 2019, but has made great strides improving the pitching staffs in programs he’s been with along the way. This Retrievers team may not be the best team in the conference, but their timely hitting, good baserunning and solid starting pitching can provide some of the great upset fodder we’re used to seeing in this America East tournament over the last few years.

BEST PLAYER: Myles Nicholson

BEST PITCHER: Luke Johnson

DARK HORSE/IMPACT PLAYER: Ian Diaz

#6 HARTFORD HAWKS

Most fans had written the Hawks out of the field before the final weekend of the season; Hartford needed to sweep the top-seeded Black Bears to have any chance to make the tournament, along with some help. The Hawks took that challenge and ran with it, besting Maine in all three contests by a combined 12 total runs. Hartford closed out the conference slate with six wins in their last eight games after starting the year 5-17 in the America East. The Hawks are near or at the bottom of every offensive and defensive category there is, but they do have a love for the long ball. In fact, the Hawks have a league high 59 bombs on the year, with 15 players who have left the yard at least once. It’s been a tough year for the team as they will be leaving the America East after the tournament and will be transitioning down to Division III, but this team has not given up as evident by the great close to the year. Shortstop Tremayne Cobb Jr leads the way with 10 home runs and the seventh-best runs batted in total in the league. Third baseman Derek Tenney has also been solid for Hartford with a .330 batting average, 10 home runs and 15 stolen bases, However, he has been caught stealing four times and leads all players in grounding into double plays with six this year. The pitching staff has the worst ERA in the league, allowing over eight runs per game. Tim Blaisdell is a bright spot with a league low 16 walks allowed over 65 innings, but still has suffers from an ERA that is at 6.78 on the year. Steve Malinowski is in his first season with Hartford as the Head Coach after taking over for longtime coach Justin Blood who left the program for Keene State. Malinowski has shown great improvement with this team down the stretch and you don’t have to look too far for reasons for optimism. With one final foray in the America East for Hartford, most teams will be thinking this is the likely first team eliminated, but everyone loves a Cinderella story and the last time Mahaney Diamond hosted the tournament, it was the Hawks who hoisted the trophy on championship Saturday.

BEST PLAYER: Tremayne Cobb Jr

BEST PITCHER: Tim Blaisdell

DARK HORSE/IMPACT PLAYER: Derek Tenney

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Tournament Schedule

Day 1: May 25

Game 1: 11 a.m. – #4 UMass Lowell vs. #5 UMBC

Game 2: 2 p.m. – #3 NJIT vs. #6 Hartford

Game 3: 6 p.m. – Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2

Day 2: May 26

Game 4: 11 a.m. – #1 UMaine vs. Winner Game 1 or 2 (Lower Seed)

Game 5: 2 p.m. – #2 Binghamton vs. Winner Game 1 or 2 (Higher Seed)

Game 6: 6 p.m. – Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4 or 5 (Lower Seed)

Day 3: May 27

Game 7: 11 a.m. – Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5

Game 8: 2 p.m. – Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 4 or 5 (Higher Seed)

Game 9: 6 p.m. – Winner Game 8 vs. Loser Game 7

Day 4: May 28

Game 10: 1 p.m. – Winner Game 7 vs. Winner Game 9

Game 11: 3:30 p.m. – Winner Game 10 vs. Loser Game 10 (If Necessary)

Last modified on Wednesday, 25 May 2022 10:30

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