Maine pitcher Nick Sinacola is averaging more than 18 strikeouts per nine innings and has allowed just three runs and 12 hits in 26 2/3 innings. Photo provided by University of Maine Athletics

Nick Sinacola, the junior right-handed ace of the University of Maine baseball team, has reached a level of excellence all pitchers strive for but few reach. Batters know what Sinacola is going to throw, but they still can’t hit it.

In Sinacola’s start against Maryland-Baltimore County on March 27 – a game in which Sinacola struck out 16 in a seven-inning, 4-1 win – one hitter looked at two fastballs that painted the outside corner to fall behind in the count 0-2. Maine catcher Ryan Turenne watched the hitter step out of the box and psyche himself out.

“Kid stepped out of the box and went ‘Why am I sitting slider?’ He said that to himself. So of course I’m going to (call) a slider next pitch. It just froze him. He ended up striking out looking,” Turenne said. “The kid was walking away like ‘I hate baseball.’ I just laugh about it, because that’s how crazy the sport is. I want to know what some of these guys are thinking when they face (Sinacola).”

The way Sinacola is fanning hitters at a pace of two per inning, it’s likely whatever they’re thinking is not pleasant as they wear a path from the batter’s box back to the dugout. In 26 2/3 innings, the 6-foot-1 Sinacola has 54 strikeouts. That works out to an average of 18.23 per nine innings, best in the nation. Sinacola’s 4.05 hits allowed per nine innings is 10th best in the nation, and his 1.01 earned-run average is 15th best. Sinacola WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is a miniscule 0.79, 18th best in the country.

“I know personally, when we do intersquads and we do team stuff, when I face Nick, my biggest goal is not to strike out. My biggest goal is to put the ball in play. I can guarantee you a lot of these teams, with the numbers he’s putting up right now, that’s kind of their thought process. Just get the ball in play,” Turenne said.

Opponents are hitting .132 against Sinacola, and at 4-0, he’s accounted for half the Black Bears’ wins.

Nick Sinacola Photo provided by University of Maine Athletics

“Nothing changes. At the end of the day, every outing is to go out there and try to get us a win. I’ll do whatever I can for that,” said Sinacola, a native of North Attleboro, Massachusetts.

Maine (8-7) is scheduled to play a four-game America East Conference series Friday and Saturday at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Sinacola is expected to pitch Game 1 of Friday’s doubleheader.

“In college, when I’ve been coaching, I haven’t seen anybody have this type of start to a year,” Maine Coach Nick Derba said.

Sinacola’s efforts have gotten him noticed by professional scouts. Both Derba and Andy Theriault, who coached Sinacola the past two summers with the Brockton Rox of the Collegiate Futures Baseball League of New England, expect Sinacola to go in the top 10 rounds of the Major League Baseball draft, which will be held July 11-13.

“Going off past drafts… If he keeps doing what he’s doing, if he doesn’t go in the top 10 rounds, I’d be very surprised. I just can’t see him not getting picked by somebody,” Derba said.

Sinacola has thought of the draft. With the way he’s making hitters look foolish, how could he not?

“That’s crossed my mind, but the goal’s the same every day: Go out there and focus on spring 2021 for the Black Bears and do what I can every single day to help us win,” Sinacola said. “Being in the (strike) zone more. Attacking hitters and trusting my catcher, Ryan Turenne, and trusting the defense behind me. Small things sometimes, that’s really it.”

Sinacola’s rise to the top of Maine’s pitching staff and the top of the NCAA’s statistics was a slow build. After helping North Attleboro High win its first Massachusetts state title in 2018, Sinacola was used primarily out of the bullpen as a UMaine freshman in 2019. In 19 games, including just three starts, Sinacola was 0-1 with a 6.81 ERA, striking out 35 in 35 2/3 innings. Last season, before it was stopped because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sinacola was 0-4 in four starts with a 5.57 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 21 innings.

As he matured, though, Sinacola’s fastball picked up velocity, and Derba saw improvement.

Sinacola’s fastball is now consistently in the low 90s, but his best pitch is his slider. Turenne estimated more than half the pitches Sinacola threw in last week’s win over Binghamton, in which Sinacola struck out 15, were sliders.

“For a pitcher, that’s kind of unheard of sometimes, having your best pitch be off speed. It’s usually the fastball. The kind of the special thing about Nick, if he can’t locate his fastball, if he’s having trouble with it, he has the slider, which he’ll use in almost every single count. It can be 3-1 and he’ll throw it, which is pretty awesome,” Turenne said.

Originally, Sinacola was going to pitch in the New England Collegiate Baseball League last summer. When the pandemic forced the NECBL to cancel the season, Sinacola returned to Brockton. There, he worked with Joey Walsh, a pitcher at Boston College, on tweaking his slider.

“I’ve thrown the same slider for years, probably from when I first started throwing breaking balls when I was 14, 15,” Sinacola said. “(Walsh) had a really good wipeout slider. I talked with him a little bit about it. We talked about throwing it a little harder, which meant messing with the grip a little bit. That’s really worked, so that change has been another big difference for it … Getting the opportunity to play summer ball when a lot of people didn’t gave me the opportunity to work on some stuff. It definitely pushed me forward.”

Sinacola started seven games for Brockton last summer, going 3-1 with a 1.61 ERA along with 55 strikeouts in 39 innings. The slider was a big part of Sinacola’s success, Theriault said, along with a split-finger fastball. The split-finger grip requires the pitcher to stretch his index and middle finger apart as far as possible, with the seams of the baseball between them. When thrown well, the pitch looks like a fastball before dropping out of the strike zone as the hitter swings. When it’s thrown poorly, it hangs like a batting practice pitch.

“The split is something you don’t see much at the amateur level. It’s such a hard pitch to command. You make a mistake with that pitch, it turns into a fastball down the middle and gets hit a long way,” Theriault said.

In 26 2/3 innings pitched this year, University of Maine junior Nick Sinacola has 54 strikeouts. Photo provided by University of Maine Athletics

This season, Sinacola has used the splitter maybe six to 10 times over every 100 pitches, Derba said. When he got to college, Sinacola’s changeup wasn’t strong, so he and Derba decided to experiment with the splitter to give Sinacola another off-speed pitch.

“The grip wasn’t necessarily tough to figure out. It was tough to stretch my fingers out. I would literally sit there during games and practice with a ball in my hand, just stretching my hand out,” Sinacola said.

Added Derba: “It’s just a pitch that gives the middle of the lineup a different look. He might not be using (it) against the seven-eight-nine guys, but a three-pitch mix with two above average off-speed pitches makes it hard when your three-four hitters are getting two plus breaking balls thrown at you … That slider is really the make or break (pitch) for him. It’s a good pitch. To command it so well, it’s hard to hit at any level if you can command a plus breaking ball.”

In his four starts this season, Sinacola hasn’t allowed more than one earned run. His season began with a three-hit, 11-strikeout effort in a 9-2 win at Merrimack. He followed that with a two-hit, 12-strikeout game in a 5-1 win over Wagner. Then came the 16 Ks against UMBC, and 15 more strikeouts in the 2-0 victory over Binghamton.

“I’m more impressed with the last start rather than the 16-strikeout (start), because he came back and did it again, came pretty damn close. Every start, he goes out and has good outings,” Derba said. “It’s the consistency factor. That’s really what you’re looking for. I’m not expecting him to strike out two an inning the rest of the year, but when he goes out and gets us wins, gives us a chance to win, each one of those subsequent starts to me is more impressive than the first.”

Turenne said he sees a new confidence in Sinacola. The two arrived at Maine together as freshmen, and now Turenne says his teammate and friend is ready to embrace the role of team leader.

“He knows that we need him, and I think in past years, he was kind of just looking for a spot. Now he has that set spot,” Turenne said.

Sinacola said he gets pretty locked in when he pitches, but he’s learning to walk the line between being too locked in and being relaxed on the mound.

“I think I’ve learned (that) to be a little looser is not a bad thing, either. Being too locked in can be an issue for me sometimes. I can be so locked in and lose touch with what’s going on around me,” he said.

That sort of happened at the end of the 16-strikeout game against UMBC. When the game was over, Turenne approached Sinacola with the intention of giving his pitcher a congratulatory fist bump.

“I don’t think it hit him as to how good he did until after the game. I was going out to give him a little knuckles right after we won, and he hit me in the chest. He was all fired up. I was like, you just hit me pretty hard,” Turenne said.

“That one, I was a little bit fired up after that one,” Sinacola said.

It’s likely Sinacola has only a handful of starts left for the Black Bears. The America East tournament is set for May 27-30. If Maine doesn’t win that and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs, Sinacola will wait for the draft in July to see where his professional baseball career will begin.

“He’s throwing more strikes. The velocity’s crept up, just because he’s gotten older. He’s always had that plus slider. That’s something he really holds onto. It helps him compete when his fastball command isn’t there,” Derba said. “We’re not talking about a guy who throws 95-97, which seems to be the norm in college baseball, but he’s helping his draft stock because his numbers are so off the charts. His velocity will creep up as he gets older. He’s going to be there. It’s just the fact that he’s out there throwing strikes, striking guys out on such a consistent basis, it’s hard to not notice that.”

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