Photo courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Nick Stevens
Nearly one month into the NCAA baseball season, the JMU Diamond Dukes sit at 10-5 overall and will welcome Lehigh University for two mid-week games on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Dukes have been impressive at home, posting a 10-2 record in their early run of home contests, including a series win against High Point University over the weekend.
JMU took two of three games from the Panthers, highlighted by a dominant eight-inning, shutout performance from Friday night starter Kevin Kelly. The High Point series painted a fairly clear picture of what type of team this Diamond Dukes squad is going to be once CAA play begins.
Since the Purple and Gold World Series in November, the pitching staff has been the focus of this team. Kelly is now 3-1 on the season with a 1.16 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 23.1 innings of work. Nick Stewart picked up his first win, and lowered his ERA to 3.00, thanks to a gritty and crafty start on Saturday. There’s also the dominance of The Bro Pound, AKA the bullpen, where Shelton Perkins, Matt Marsili, Brett Ayer and Nick Robertson have combined for 62 strikeouts in 36.2 innings.
As a team, JMU’s pitchers have recorded a 3.61 ERA and held opponents to a .241 batting average. In a conference dominated by pitching staffs with MLB talent, the Dukes rank fourth in ERA, fourth in opponents’ batting average and third in strikeouts. The staff continues to improve and hasn’t reached their peak yet, which is an encouraging sign heading into the heart of the schedule.
The big question is, can the offense provide enough support for this staff to help the Dukes reach the CAA tournament for the first time since 2016?
In any given game, fans could see as many as six freshmen in the Dukes’ lineup, plus Brady Harju at first base, a recent JUCO transfer. In Saturday’s 11-0 win over High Point, seven new faces appeared in the starting lineup, collecting 16 hits and drawing five walks across nine innings.
While Harju has the ability to become a legitimate home run threat in the heart of the order, there isn’t a real power bat in the lineup, as witnessed during the days of Brett Johnson and Adam Sisk. The 2019 Dukes don’t rely on the long ball, but are instead executing smart, situational hitting. JMU used a slightly different lineup Saturday which has big potential to be a force in the CAA.
Freshman third baseman Tre Dabney was moved into the leadoff spot this weekend, followed by top-of-the-lineup regulars, Michael Morgan and Kyle Novak. Dabney’s ability to get on base (.429 OBP) and Novak’s bat-to-ball skills (just three strikeouts in 51 at-bats) set the table perfectly for Morgan’s ability to grind out extra-base hits.
A middle of the order with the power of Harju and the speed of DaVonn Griffin and Fox Semones is the key to it all. Both Griffin and Semones have enough speed to turn sacrifice bunts into exciting base hits, while mixing in sneaky pop. Don’t forget, Semones hit seven home runs last season.
Rounding out the lineup with freshman Nick Zona, who leads the team with a .388 average, and there is no rest for opposing pitchers. Zona never tries to do too much at the plate and invokes the “Wee Willie” Keeler strategy of hitting it where they ain’t. He picks up the ball well and rarely gets fooled, very quietly putting together the type of season that won’t draw much hype, but will help win a lot of ball games and lead to a very long and successful career.
We saw what happened against Louisville. I imagine taking your first road trip to play one of the top programs in the country is quite daunting for a lineup consisting of mostly freshmen. Cold streaks are going to happen, that’s baseball, but this lineup has the tools and ability to make some noise. It won’t be easy, however, playing in front of their home crowd in the CAA tournament is a real possibility for the Dukes, where they just have to get in. Once that happens, it’s baseball, anything can happen.