A year away from baseball may have slowed Jimmy Neal at the start of the season, but now the University of Maine at Farmington junior is cruising.

“I had a little bit of a slow start,” Neal, a graduate of Mt. Blue High School said, “but I settled in.”

Neal, playing his first season with the Beavers, has helped the team into contention for a spot in the North Atlantic Conference playoffs on the mound and at the plate. Neal is 3-1, and his 1.67 earned run average is second best in the NAC, behind Husson’s Tim Nason (0.84).

When he’s not pitching, Neal serves as UMF’s designated hitter. After Sunday’s doubleheader split at New England College, Neal’s batting average was an even .300, with one home run, 12 runs batted in and 16 runs scored. His on .436 base percentage is seventh best in the conference.

The Beavers are in third place in the North Atlantic Conference. The top four teams in the conference will play in the league tournament, which begins on Friday.

“He’s a level-headed kid who doesn’t get worked up when things aren’t going well,” UMF coach Chris Bessey said of Neal. “Fortunately for us, he came back.”

Neal spent his freshman year at Lyndon State College in Vermont, and transferred to UMF for the start of his sophomore year. He chose not to play baseball, and spent the year adjusting to his new yet familiar school.

“I came back, and I loved it. I grew up (in Farmington),” Neal said. “A took a year off to focus on my business major.”

Neal’s breakthrough on the mound came April 4 against Castleton State, the first place team in the league. Neal pitched six innings of two-hit shutout ball to earn the win in the Beavers’ 3-1 victory.

“That game gave him a lot of confidence,” Bessey said.

“I hadn’t thrown against them before. I knew they’re a good hitting team,” Neal said. “I tried to keep (the ball) on the outside of the plate. I located my pitches well, and I kept them off-balance with my curve and changeup.”

Neal’s best pitch this season has been a four seam fastball that he can throw in the low 80′s. Neal credited catchers Jordan Croteau and Ethan Gouin with helping making him a better pitcher.

“Those guys are helping me locating my spots, and I think location is key,” Neal said.

“He’s probably our No. 3 (starter) right now,” Bessey said. “For us to make a run, he’ll have to be pitching well.”

Neal started the season as the Beavers’ No. 9 hitter but in recent games has hit cleanup.

“Taking a year off, he struggled with his timing, but he’s coming around,” Bessey said.

Bessey noted Neal’s plate discipline — Neal’s 15 walks lead the team. Neal said he spent extra time in the batting cage to get his swing back.

“I’ve just started to make solid contact,” Neal said. “It was just putting extra time in. I really focused back on my mechanics.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242 tlazarczyk@centralmaine.com Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM