SANFORD — After players from Maine and Holy Cross pulled the tarp over the Goodall Park infield during a rain delay last week, Tommy Lawrence figured everyone could use a chuckle.
So he ducked into the dugout, peeled off his socks and shoes, put on his jersey upside down over his legs and did likewise over his head with his white uniform pants. Sticking an arm straight up through both pant legs, he staggered stiff-legged across the grass and onto the tarp.
At first glance, Lawrence appeared to be walking on his hands. Only upon closer inspection was it clear what he had done.
“That was to keep the guys loose,” Lawrence said later. “You can’t play the game tight. You’ve got to have fun with it.”
A red-shirt junior, Lawrence has been having a ball this spring, his second in Orono. He set an America East record for wins with eight, went 9-3 overall with a 2.59 earned runs average and is one victory shy of joining Billy Swift, Scott Morse and three others as the only 10-game winners in Black Bear history.
“When it’s not his turn to pitch, he’s the class clown,” said Maine head coach Steve Trimper. “The days that he’s pitching? Boy, stay out of his way. It’s night and day. He puts the blinders on.”
Trimper will hand the baseball to Lawrence on Wednesday afternoon for the opening game of the America East tournament at LeLacheur Park in Lowell, Mass. The top-seeded Black Bears (34-20) will face No. 4 Stony Brook (23-32) at 4 p.m. followed by No. 2 Binghamton and No. 3 Albany.
Last year, Stony Brook used the America East tournament as a springboard to a victorious NCAA regional in Coral Gables, Fla., and a shocking upset of Louisiana State in Baton Rouge to advance to the College World Series.
The Seawolves needed a victory over Hartford on Saturday on the last day of the regular season to secure the final spot in the four-team, double-elimination tournament. Wednesday’s winners meet at 8 p.m. Thursday after an elimination game between Wednesday’s losing teams.
Lawrence grew up in West Haven, Conn., and headed to Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., where he pitched mainly in relief for two seasons. He preferred to start, however, and after the Winthrop coach who recruited him was fired, Lawrence transferred to Maine, a decision solidified in the summer of 2011 when he pitched for the Sanford Mainers along with current Black Bear teammate A.J. Bazdanes.
“I was talking mostly to A.J. about it,” Lawrence said. “He liked it up here. He brought me up (to Orono) and I loved it.”
NCAA regulations required Lawrence to sit out a year before he could play for Maine. Coincidentally, Bazdanes was also on the sidelines recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery.
This spring they’ve been the workhorses of Trimper’s staff, each surpassing 90 innings. Trimper said he plans to use Bazdanes, a native of Nashua, N.H., as his Game 3 starter and possible Game 1 closer. Junior Mike Connolly, the catcher who also pitches and earlier this season played all nine positions in a game, will start Game 2.
Bazdanes is 6-5 with a 3.23 ERA. Opponents are batting .233 against him. Connolly is 5-3 with a 2.04 ERA. Opponents are batting .202 against him.
“All three guys have done a tremendous job for us,” Trimper said. “We’ve been fortunate to have pitchers who throw strikes. They’ve been keeping us in ballgames.”
Maine won the season series against all three tournament opponents, but four of the six games with Stony Brook were decided by one run.
“Every one of those teams has beaten us this year and every one has a good No. 1 (pitcher),” Trimper said. “So nothing is guaranteed. We’ve got to play well for three days.”