Maranacook baseball coach Eric Brown had lots of returning starters this season, but one clear hole on the team. Dan Garand had guided the Black Bears to the Class C South final last year, and his graduation left a need for someone to replace both his ability and his durability atop the rotation.

That’s a tall order. Brown, however, had the perfect candidate in Jay Lauter, a left-hander who had come on late in his junior season.

“I had a pretty good idea what we had,” Brown said. “I knew he had reached sort of that next level.”

There was no predicting, though, what came next. Lauter was dominant, going 6-0 with a 0.95 ERA and striking out 84 in 44 innings as Maranacook went 16-2 and reached the C South semifinals.

For his performance, Lauter is the Kennebec Journal Baseball Player of the Year. Hall-Dale’s Akira Warren, Gardiner’s Casey Bourque and Cony’s Kyle Douin were also considered.

Maranacook’s Jay Lauter pitches against Waterville during a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference game Wednesday in Readfield. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

“Being a senior, I expected to take over a lot of roles, and I expected to achieve a lot more than I did the previous year,” Lauter said. “I knew I was going to step into the spot and take over for when Garand left. I just wanted to do as best as I could.”

When Lauter was at his best, teams didn’t touch him. Opposing batters hit .084 against him, and never had more than two hits against him in any game he pitched during the regular season. Lauter tossed two shutouts and twice took no-hitters into the fifth inning.

“This kid had something a little more,” Brown said. “A little more special.”

Lauter’s key was mastery of two pitches. One was a slider that broke sharply and that Lauter could throw on any count. The other was a two-seam fastball that, at 84 miles per hour and paired with the ever-present threat of the slider, overwhelmed batters.

“I remember the first time I saw him throw his two-seamer in a bullpen, it was amazing how much it moved,” Brown said. “(And) his slider was just as good as his two-seamer.”

Occasionally, batters would figure him out enough to work the count. That didn’t work either. Lauter’s number was 32 for a reason — he looked forward to full counts.

“I love pressure,” he said. “I love the sport. I’ve always liked watching baseball and seeing the tough situations, so I always try to embrace it. It doesn’t feel like a sport unless you’re challenged.”

Lauter and the Black Bears started the season hot, but he said he didn’t get carried away by the dazzling numbers he was putting up.

“I try to forget about the game before,” he said. “I always feel in a zone during a game, but I never feel it throughout the season.”

Even during those games, Lauter said he didn’t get ahead of himself if he was pitching a gem.

“You’ve got to think about every singular pitch,” he said. “You can’t think about a batter or a certain person you think is going to hit you. You’ve got to go one by one pitch, and you try to win the pitch. If you can’t win the pitches, you can’t win that at-bat. It’s all just building blocks.”

The Black Bears had perhaps the best pitcher in Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B, but there was a growing problem. Lauter hurt his back last summer, and after starting the season pain-free, began to feel the familiar soreness in the third game.

“At first it was a little discomfort, and I would hunch a little bit while I was pitching and it would relieve some of the pain,” he said. “Then, progressively, it worked up and up and up to the point where I went to the doctor and he said it wouldn’t heal until the end of the season.”

After Maranacook beat Mt. Abram in the C South quarterfinals to set up a semifinal matchup with Sacopee Valley, Brown got a text from his ace.

“He said ‘Get (Glen) Guerrette ready, because I may not be able to go tomorrow,’ ” Brown said.

Lauter did go, and at far less than 100 percent, had to battle. He allowed six hits in four innings but held the Hawks to two runs, and still managed to strike out nine.

“I was in tears in the dugout. I was shaking and throbbing,” he said. “I’m just happy I could contribute.”

His last pitch was one of his biggest of the season, a 3-2 fastball that struck out Austin Eastman and left the bases loaded and the game tied at 2.

As he walked back to the dugout, he let out a yell — this time, not in pain, but in triumph.

“He manned up and really fought through it,” Brown said. “It was that important to him. He says he doesn’t care, he doesn’t mind or what have you for most things, but I think he does. I think, deep down, things are important to him to do well and be there for his teammates.”

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