May 23—Facing overwhelming odds, the University of Maine baseball team qualified for the America East Tournament thanks to a Saturday it will never forget.
The Black Bears entered the day needing to sweep Albany at Mahaney Diamond in Orono and have Hartford post a doubleheader sweep at UMass Lowell.
And that’s exactly what happened.
The Black Bears were one strike away from being eliminated, but Connor Goodman grounded a two-run single to cap a three-run seventh-inning rally that gave the Black Bears a 6-5 win over Albany in the first game of their doubleheader sweep.
UMaine triumphed 4-2 in the nightcap behind freshman lefty Tyler Nielsen’s six innings of three-hit shutout pitching and Matt Pushard’s three innings of four-hit, two-run relief.
Meanwhile, Hartford beat UMass Lowell 3-0 in the opener and built a 6-0 lead in the nightcap before hanging on for a 7-5 win.
Since UMaine’s doubleheader started an hour prior to the Hartford-UMass Lowell twinbill, Black Bear players nervously watched the second game in Hartford from the Palmer Lounge in the Mahaney Clubhouse.
“I am so happy right now. I’m going to send [Hartford coach] Justin Blood some lobsters,” quipped UMaine coach Nick Derba. “I was sick with nerves [watching the game]. I was even biting my nails.
“Now we have a shot,” he said. “After yesterday, the guys responded. They got after it. What else do you want? I’m really proud of them.”
UMaine (16-17 in the conference) will join host Stony Brook (25-10), Albany (20-18) and the New Jersey Institute of Technology (23-17) for the four-team, double-elimination conference tournament that begins Thursday, May 27.
UMass Lowell and Hartford finished 18-20 in the A division which included Albany and UMaine. Stony Brook and NJIT are the B division representatives.
“It was extremely stressful watching that game,” said UMaine junior pitcher Alex McKenney of Hampden. “We were hanging on every pitch. Even though Hartford led 6-0, we knew there was going to be drama in the last inning.”
“Some guys were too nervous to watch the game,” said Pushard, a senior reliever from Brewer, who picked up the save in the nightcap.
UMaine hadn’t missed the league tournament since 2009, but Albany’s Friday sweep of the Black Bears left them clinging to the slimmest of hopes.
In Saturday’s first game, McKenney cruised through five scoreless before being torched for six hits and five runs in the sixth. They included Johnny Marti’s third home run in as many games this weekend, a three-run blast to right.
“I made some bad pitches in that inning,” McKenney said.
Lefty reliever Anthony Fusco came on to start the seventh for the Great Danes and struck out Ryan Turenne to open the frame. Colby Emmertz lined a single to left, but shortstop Brad Malm made a sparkling play in the hole to force him at second base on Jake Marquez’s grounder.
UMaine stayed alive when Jake Rainess legged out a check-swing single between first and second to extend the inning.
But it was Albany’s turn for some good fortune when Quinn McDaniel’s potential game-tying, extra-base hit to deep right-center bounced over the fence for a ground-rule double which prevented Rainess from scoring the tying run. Marquez crossed the plate to make it 5-4.
Goodman fell behind 0-2 in the count before grounding his game-winning single up the middle.
“They put me in a spot to win the game and I’m really happy,” Goodman said.
He said he takes pride in putting the ball in play when he has two strikes on him. He has struck out only 17 times in 162 at-bats.
“He threw me a fastball right down the middle. That’s all I needed,” Goodman said.
“The one thing you can say for us is we never gave up. You saw it today,” Goodman said. “We could have easily rolled over. But we were able to battle back for each other.”
Sean Lawlor’s seventh homer of the season, to right-center, staked UMaine to a 1-0 lead in the second. A Rainess triple delivered a fifth-inning run and McDaniel’s sacrifice fly plated him.
Rainess went 3-for-3, adding a double and a single. Peter Kemble of Bangor picked up the win in relief with a scoreless inning.
Marti, Malm (double) and Marc Wangenstein (doubled) posted two hits apiece for Albany.
In the second game, Nielsen (2-2) struck out five and didn’t walk anyone in his six innings.
“That was an absolutely amazing performance,” Goodman said.
“The last couple times my stuff has been good, but I didn’t execute properly and today I executed really good,” Nielsen said. “Today was the first day I felt really totally in control.”
UMaine took a 1-0 lead in the third on Scout Knotts’ triple and Lawlor’s RBI fielder’s choice. The hosts added two more in the fifth when McDaniel walked and runners wound up on second and third when losing pitcher Connor Eisenmann threw wide of first on Goodman’s sacrifice bunt.
Knotts’ sacrifice fly and Lawlor’s single produced the runs.
UMaine made it 4-0 in the seventh when Goodman was hit by a pitch, advanced on Lawlor’s single and scored on an errant pickoff.
Pushard cruised through the seventh and eighth innings but gave up three hits and two runs in the ninth before retiring the side.
Knotts, Lawlor and Turenne had two hits apiece for UMaine while Marti and Jason Bottari had two each for Albany. Chase Carroll hit a two-run double in the ninth.