ORONO — The moment Nick Derba knew Cody Laweryson could contribute to the University of Maine baseball team was only peripherally related to baseball. For Derba, now the Black Bears interim head coach who was a member of former coach Steve Trimper’s staff last season, that mental call to the bullpen came when he saw Laweryson’s two-handed dunk in the Class D state championship basketball game last year.
“I said, ‘This kid is a very good athlete,'” Derba said.
Laweryson, a freshman pitcher from Bingham’s Valley High School, has established himself as one of the top pitchers in Maine’s bullpen. In 10 appearances this season, all in relief, the 6-foot-4 Laweryson is 2-1 with a 2.50 earned run average. In 18 innings, Laweryson has 21 strikeouts to just five walks. This weekend, Laweryson will make his first career start in the Black Bears’ weekend series against Manhattan College.
“My pitch count has been pretty low,” Laweryson said. “Hopefully, I can go five or six innings and help the team win.”
Coming out of Class D Valley, Laweryson had rarely been tested by high school hitters. His fastball, consistently thrown in the high 80s, was simply overpowering. Laweryson expected a longer adjustment period in college, as he got used to pitching to hitters unfazed when a fastball makes the catcher’s mitt pop echo.
“I didn’t expect to have as big a role,” Laweryson said.
After a shaky debut, in which Laweryson allowed two runs in a third of an inning against Winthrop, he settled in to his role as fireman of the Maine bullpen. In his second outing, Laweryson was called on in the fifth inning against Central Connecticut, bases loaded, nobody out. After allowing a sacrifice fly, Laweryson struck out two hitters to limit the damage. He threw three shutout innings that game, allowing two hits.
“It was a situation where we were just trying to stop the bleeding,” Derba said. “Then he does it again. He consistently goes out and does the job. He just goes and pitches. It doesn’t matter who’s in the box.”
On March 5, Laweryson pitched 4 2/3 shutout innings in Maine’s 5-4, 18-inning marathon win over St. Bonaventure. He entered the game with one out in the sixth inning, with the bases full of Bonnies. A strikeout and a popup later, and the game was still tied at 3-3.
Laweryson earned his first career win on April 2 with 2 1/3 scoreless innings in an America East Conference win over UMass-Lowell. He followed that with a conference win over Hartford with a perfect ninth inning, won when the Black Bears scored on a wild pitch in the bottom of the inning.
Laweryson cops to being nervous on the mound just once, when he pitched against Miami on March 14. Nerves and all, he still threw 1 2/3 scoreless innings and struck out three Hurricanes.
Laweryson has always been able to locate his fastball. Now he’s added a slider, a pitch he began working on last summer, and throws his changeup more than he did in high school. Laweryson also made some mechanical adjustments to his delivery.
“I’m working on my back leg drive, to get more velocity on my fastball,” Laweryson said.
This weekend’s start doesn’t signify a major change in Laweryson’s role this season, Derba said. Rather, it’s kind of a sneak preview of the future. Derba expects the Black Bears upperclassmen rotation to lose some arms in the June draft. Spots will open.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the rotation next year. His junior year, for sure,” Derba said. “He’s always had a natural sink to his fastball. His fastball command was always good. Now he’s added a slider for an offspeed pitch.”
When the college season is complete, Laweryson will join the Worcester (Mass.) Bravehearts of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, a college summer league with teams throughout New England. The Bravehearts begin play June 2.
“I want to keep doing what I’m doing, while gaining a little more velocity,” Laweryson said. “My arm’s still getting stronger.”
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242