Photo courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Nick Stevens
Last weekend didn’t go as planned for the JMU Diamond Dukes. Taking their 7-1 record on the road for the first time in 2019, the Dukes managed to bring just one run across the plate in three-straight losses to the No. 8 Louisville Cardinals. The Dukes (8-4, JMU beat George Mason 10-7 on Tuesday) can now put that series behind them and focus on the High Point Panthers, who visit Veterans Memorial Park this weekend for a three-game series.
It is still very early in the season and High Point isn’t a CAA foe, however, this series will be telling for Marlin Ikenberry’s very young lineup. The Dukes struggled against one of the top pitching staffs they will face all year, a Cardinals rotation led by standout arms receiving serious attention ahead of the 2019 MLB draft. Now they get the opportunity to learn from that experience and put their lessons to the test against an underrated High Point team.
High Point visits Harrisonburg with a 4-6 record and an 0-4 mark against CAA schools (three losses to William and Mary, one to Elon), but is 3-1 on the road. The Dukes are 7-0 all-time against High Point. JMU swept the Panthers in North Carolina to kick off the 2018 season, where utility man Harry Brown belted two home runs in his first three games as a Duke.
Here are three big things to watch for in this weekend’s series between the Dukes and Panthers.
The more aggressive team will win this series.
JMU hitters, although young, have shown advanced plate awareness and an ability to recognize pitches. As a team, they have drawn 55 walks in 12 games, helping them to a .379 on-base percentage. However, High Point pitchers don’t issue a lot of free passes.
High Point pitchers have the 34th highest K-BB ratio in the country and starting pitchers Harrison Smith and Joe Johnson have combined for 25 strikeouts and two walks in 23 innings. JMU pitchers rank 35th in K-BB ratio, meaning both staffs throw a lot of strikes. The more aggressive lineup should take this series and pile on a high number of runs in the process.
It won’t be that easy for High Point.
This JMU rotation may throw a lot of strikes, but they don’t allow a lot of hits. Opponents are hitting .250 against Kevin Kelly, .200 versus Nick Stewart, and .212 against Joe Williams. Kelly’s multiple arm slots, command, and extreme pitch movement lead to a fair amount of weak contact, while Stewart uses his overpowering fastball to challenge hitters head on.
If opponents are able to make it through the Dukes’ starting pitcher, the likes of Matt Marsili (zero hits allowed in 4.2 IP), Brett Ayer (0.82 WHIP in 11 IP), and “Big Country” Nick Robertson (0 H, 0 R in 5.1 IP) make it extremely difficult to find baserunners. High Point hitters enter the weekend with a .243 team batting average, which ranks sixth among Big South Conference teams.
Tre Dabney is quickly emerging into a must-watch in the CAA.
JMU has used as many as five new faces in their lineup this season. It’s hard to pick just one fresh face to highlight, but let’s start with third baseman Tre Dabney. Dabney won CAA Player of the Week honors in his first week as a college baseball player and has remained a steady force for the Dukes.
Starting every game for JMU, Dabney is hitting .297 and is second on the team in on-base percentage (.469), RBIs (8), and doubles (4). His swing does get big at times, leading to 13 strikeouts, but he has drawn six walks and has been hit by a pitch six times. Good things happen when you get on base, evidenced by his team-leading 10 runs scored.
His defense, however, is what stands out. An infield of three freshmen and a JUCO transfer could lead to plenty of adventures on defense, but Dabney’s range and strong arm have helped to alleviate some of those potential adventures. His solo home run accounted for the only run against Louisville last weekend.
Weather permitting, here is the weekend schedule and probable pitching matchups.
Editor’s note: JMU pitchers are listed first
Friday at 4 p.m.: Kevin Kelly (2-1, 1.76 ERA) vs. Andrew Gottfried (0-2, 9.35 ERA)
Saturday at 2 p.m.: Nick Stewart (0-2, 4.15 ERA) vs. Harrison Smith (0-0, 2.31 ERA)
Sunday at 1 p.m.: Joe Williams (1-0, 1.88 ERA) vs. Joe Johnson (0-1, 6.75 ERA)