The last time the Maine and Binghamton baseball teams met, they were contenders in a winner-take-all showdown with the America East title on the line. This weekend, the two former titans skirmished for a fourth-place standing in the conference — the bottom slot for post-season eligibility.
Despite the dissimilarity in standings, Binghamton (12-19, 6-8 AE) reigned champion on both occasions. Building upon last year’s 4-0 championship game win over Maine (14-21, 5-7 AE), the Bearcats took two out of three games this weekend.
Battling back from a muffled early season performance, junior outfielder Jake Thomas put on his second two-home run display in the past two weeks, belting the first grand slam of his career in the series finale.
Thomas, who earned America East Player of the Week honors, hit .500 through the series, bumped up his conference-leading home run total to six and tacked on an additional seven RBIs to lead the team with 25, also good for second in the AE.
“[On Sunday, Thomas] was the main guy who obviously drove the runs in,” BU head coach Tim Sinicki said. “Heading into the season, we thought [Thomas] was our best offensive player, and it’s certainly good when the guy that you perceived to be your best offensive guy comes through and is able to showcase your skills the way he did yesterday.”
Maine didn’t just allow Thomas and Binghamton to reprise their leading roles, however. The same Black Bears who were doomed to runner-up status in 2013 entered the series with a seemingly vengeful spirit, capturing the opener, 3-0.
“I think the one thing that we see this year, being the defending champs, is that everyone is taking their best shot at us,” Sinicki said. “Everyone wants to knock off the champion … but you have to be up for the challenge when that happens.”
Binghamton wasn’t quite up for the challenge in game one, in which its offense saw a rusty start. Maine’s Tommy Lawrence, a junior, didn’t make the job any easier. He scattered six hits over nine innings, allowed no runs and struck out seven. BU hit just .194 through the game, though it did keep Maine scoreless through seven.
But Maine’s dominance expired after the first game. The Black Bears fell victim to missed opportunities and were quelled by Binghamton’s defense in the subsequent two, allowing the Bearcats’ potent offense to fly.
The determining factor?
“It’s timely hitting,” Sinicki said. “And that’s what we’ve been missing kind of all year. When we get guys on base, we need to find a way to not only execute and move runners around, but we need to find a way to drive guys in. And I think we actually did that pretty well on Saturday in game two and then again [Sunday], of course.”
BU’s bats exploded in game two, when the Bearcats strung together a .385 team batting average with 10 hits in 26 at-bats. Senior center fielder Bill Bereszniewicz, who leads the conference with a .344 batting average, senior designated hitter Shaun McGraw and Thomas all reached base twice and plated a run at least once.
Completing the 180 reversal, Maine, second in conference rankings for team batting (.271), was held to a low of .200 in Saturday’s closer.
Though Binghamton’s offense clearly broke through its cloudy hull and shone this weekend, the defense remained characteristically dominant. Binghamton’s 8-2 win on Sunday obscures it, but Maine was not too far behind in the rubber game. The Black Bears actually outhit Binghamton, 9-8, but saw their opportunities stifled by BU’s field.
“We’ve played good defense all year,” Sinicki said. “Our fielding percentage is over .970 right now, which probably has us ranked somewhere in the top 50 in the country. And for a team that plays in the northeast and doesn’t get to practice outside until about April, that’s really getting it done on the defensive end of things.”
This win and their 7-0 retribution over Cornell on Thursday provided some semblance of consolation for the Bearcats’ own fall earlier in the week at Stony Brook. The conference leaders capped off a closely-fought first day with a 12-2 jab on Sunday to complete the three-game sweep of Binghamton.
“[Stony Brook is] certainly one of the teams to beat in the conference at this point,” Sinicki said. “I thought we matched up with them pretty well in the first two games last weekend, but the third game just kind of got away from us a little bit.”
With nine conference games remaining in the regular season, Binghamton has to continue improving upon its offensive performance to stay in the running for the championship. However, with a schedule speckled with non-conference games, the Bearcats can continue to test themselves in hopes of performing best where it counts most.
Up next is Binghamton’s third and final meeting with Cornell (15-19, 6-10 Ivy) this season. After Thursday’s win, the teams have split the season series 1-1.
First pitch is set for 4 p.m. today at David F. Hoy Field.