Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Nick Stevens
Let the real test begin for the Diamond Dukes. The majority of their non-conference schedule is complete, with JMU coming out near the top of the CAA standings at 15-7, just behind William and Mary for first place heading into conference play.
We have seen this before with the Diamond Dukes. Strong non-conference records, flirting with the national polls, wins over national powerhouses and big performances from the lineup. There’s no point in sugarcoating this, JMU has to make some noise in the CAA in 2019.
The tournament returns to Harrisonburg this season, an event the Dukes have missed out on the past two seasons (finishing seventh in 2017 and ‘18). The upper echelon of CAA teams are sure to be good, your usual competitors of UNCW, Northeastern, Charleston and Elon. MLB-quality pitching is plentiful in the conference, which should make for an extremely competitive tournament.
The Dukes open up CAA play at home against a 4-15 Delaware team. Where do the Dukes rank in this first round of power rankings?
CAA Power Rankings (March 22)
1. Elon Phoenix (11-10)
Until Elon stumbles against CAA competition, the Phoenix are the team to beat in 2019 thanks to their elite starting rotation. Three of their losses have come against ranked opponents. The only knock is a series loss to Bryant, at home. Starters George Kirby and Kyle Brnovich have combined for 81 strikeouts in 58 innings, with Kirby allowing only one walk. Unbelievable. As a staff, Phoenix pitchers are allowing a .219 average. On offense, junior infielder Joe Satterfield is hitting .403 with a .510 OBP and 10 extra-base hits. No team in the CAA has reached base at a higher clip than Elon.
2. Charleston Cougars (13-8)
Other than a series win against a ranked UConn team, Charleston hasn’t had many big wins but the Cougars have beaten the teams they are supposed to beat. Their offense leads the CAA in batting average (.270) and slugging percentage (.404) and it’s extremely difficult to strike them out. Beating the Cougars requires jumping on them early. The starting rotation hasn’t been impressive outside of Griffin McLarty, but the bullpen has been fantastic. Charleston and Elon kick off their CAA slates against each other in the must-watch series of the weekend.
3) UNC-Wilmington Seahawks (11-10)
Lead by shortstop Greg Jones (previously selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the MLB draft and considered the top draft-eligible bat in the CAA), UNCW leads the CAA in home runs and walks. Cole Weiss is back and hitting .372, while Jones has already swiped 13 bases and hit four triples. On the mound, UNCW pitchers simply do not allow extra-bases. Other than pitcher Alex Royalty (MLB draft, Indians), the Seahawks return much of a team that made it to the NCAA Greenville Regional championship game in 2018.
4) William & Mary Tribe (14-4)
Huge wins against UVA and VCU and sweeps against High Point and Campbell highlight what William and Mary has been able to achieve in 2019. The Tribe opens at home against Northeastern, which will tell us a lot more about the Tribe, but there are holes in the lineup and the pitching staff has been good, but hittable.
5) JMU Dukes (15-7)
The pitching staff remains hot and the weekday starters are beginning to settle in and heat up. However, the lineup is cooling off and has struggled to score runs as of late. Freshman Tre Dabney has won CAA Player of the Week honors twice already, leading an impressive group of freshmen. I almost forgot, they became the first team in college baseball history to shutout Cal State Fullerton in back-to-back games in California.
Fox Semones and DaVonn Griffin have to get it going immediately to help support one of the top pitching staffs in the CAA. Kevin Kelly is 4-1 with a 0.93 ERA and the bullpen combo of Shelton Perkins, Brett Ayer, Nick Robertson and Matt Marsili has given up just five earned runs and recorded 77 strikeouts.
6) Northeastern Huskies (10-10)
Back-to-back regular season CAA champs, Northeastern is coming off a program record 36 wins. Other than a win against Missouri, the Huskies have struggled to get off the ground in 2019. Starting pitcher Sean Mellen has been fantastic, posting a 0.64 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in five starts, but as a team, Northeastern pitchers have recorded a 5.12 ERA. The Huskies open the series against William and Mary (14-4) which might be the most telling series of the weekend. Sorry NU fans, show me something first.
7) Hofstra Pride (3-12)
Hofstra has yet to play a home game and won’t until April 2. The Pride is hitting .215 as a team and their pitching staff has a league-worst 6.83 ERA (gave up 24 runs to Central Michigan) and 87 strikeouts (for comparison, the three-man weekend staff for JMU has 79.) Hofstra doesn’t begin CAA play until next week.
8) Towson Tigers (3-15)
The Tigers are hitting just .215 as a team and are the only CAA team with an OBP under 300 (.282). The pitching staff has allowed 109 walks and has worked a 6.42 ERA through their first 18 games. Towson enters CAA play on a three-game losing streak and has been outscored 23-2 in those games. The last time Towson did not finish in the bottom three of the CAA was 2013. Georgia State was in the conference then. Tough stretch.
9) Delaware Blue Hens (4-15)
Delaware visits Harrisonburg to begin CAA play on Friday. It started the year 0-13 and is 0-11 on the road, with three of its four wins coming against Division II schools Goldey Beacom College (2-14 record) and West Chester (9-3 record). Delaware pitchers have a combined WHIP of 1.74, which means a lot of base runners in a conference with a respectable amount of speed. This is a team that swept Maryland and took a series against Elon and UNCW last season. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about CAA baseball, the records don’t mean much when these teams take the field.