Only 19 players at the Division I level of college baseball hold the role of catcher and starting pitcher simultaneously, and UMaine has one of them: junior Mike Connolly.
“It’s a little different,” Connolly said. “I know a few guys who pitch and catch, but they only throw one inning here or there. I have to catch two games, then I have to start pitching. I’ve been pitching my whole life — this catching thing is new — and I’ve been hitting my whole life too. They both come pretty naturally to me,” Connolly said.
Connolly, hailing from Bridgewater, Mass., is a regular on the starting pitching rotation for the Black Bears, leading the team with a 1.72 Earned Run Average in 45 1/3 innings to go along with 29 strikeouts against 10 walks. His record is 4-2 with six games started and eight overall appearances.
This past weekend, Connolly pitched nine shutout innings giving up only four hits to the Stony Brook Seawolves in a 1-0 10 inning loss. Earlier in the week, he was a vital part of a comeback effort with the bat in a nail-biting 9-8 victory over Division III Colby College.
“That’s just the perfect example of how baseball goes,” Connolly said. “[Colby College senior pitcher Mark Nelson] threw three pitches for strikes, and he kept us off the board for a while. Sometimes you have to tip the cap and say, ‘Hey, good job.’ [...] At the same time, we didn’t play our best; but it was good that we pulled out the win.”
Connolly is hitting .337 in 86 at bats this year, with 13 runs scored and 30 hits. Connolly hasn’t always been a pitcher and a catcher, however. He began his career at UMaine playing a different position. His ability to play multiple positions well gave him a chance to play as a freshman, and it helped him make his choice when he was being recruited.
“I came in as a shortstop, I moved around the infield freshman year and the last year I started catching a little bit. I pitched 65 innings on the mound. This year I am doing both,” Connolly said. “Coach Trimper said he was going to give me a pretty nice scholarship. I was also looking at Virginia Tech, [University of Connecticut], and Bryant University, but coach [Trimper] said, ‘Hey, you’re going to play as a freshman.’ And I said, ‘Hey, that’s it.’ That’s important — playing as a freshman.”
Connolly’s father played professional baseball, and Connolly himself hopes he can do the same when he is finished at UMaine.
“I’m hoping to play pro ball at some point, whether it be this year or next year — hopefully this year. My dad played pro ball. He got drafted out of high school by the Cleveland Indians. He played a few years in the minors. He is kind of living college baseball through me a little bit. It’s great, but I’m hoping the next level comes pretty soon.
“I started played when I was three years old. I lived in Crystal Lake, Ill. We moved to Massachusetts when I was 10. I was about six when my dad re-tried out for the New York Mets. The tryout was in Illinois, and it was pretty cool because they did a story about me and him, how he was 33 at the time and still trying to play ball. He was better than all the young guys but was just a little too old to be picked up. It was pretty cool.”
Even though he is from Massachusetts, he looks up to the team captain of arguably the biggest rival in all of Boston sports: the New York Yankees.
“I’ve always looked up to Derek Jeter. He is the perfect example as to how the game should be played. He’s never in the news with a DUI or anything like that. I just think he’s a great guy, especially for his age. I think that whole Yankees organization looks up to him,” Connolly said.
“Don’t get me wrong, I hate the Yankees. I’m a Red Sox fan until I die, but Derek Jeter is just amazing.”
When asked about his favorite memories, Connolly brought up two: one about his playing career and another about the team working with a teen with Cystic Fibrosis.
“One of them was going to regionals freshman year because that is what all college teams dream of doing — winning the conference and then going on to play in regionals,” Connolly said. “The new memory I have now is working with Teen Impact. We’re bringing in a kid with cystic fibrosis. He’s going to be coming to practice with us and be part of our team. He’s from Bangor, 16 years old, and it’s going to be a nice memory because it gives him that extra smile a day. And it’s a life changer.”
Connolly and the Black Bears hold a 24-15 overall record and are in first place in the America East conference with a 13-4 conference record as they try and take back the conference championship for the first time since Connolly’s freshman year.
You can catch the Black Bears at home this weekend as they will host Holy Cross on Tuesday, April 23 at 5:30 p.m. at the Mahaney Diamond. They also host a three-game series this weekend, taking on America East foe Hartford University. The doubleheader is scheduled to start April 27, with games at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., and will finish April 28 at noon.