Image courtesy of JMU athletics communications
By Nick Stevens
How does JMU baseball make the CAA tournament in 2019? It won’t be easy, but it is achievable. Wins have avoided the Dukes for much of their CAA slate, but the season is far from over. How do they get these wins? Play JMU baseball.
JMU is currently 22-17 overall and sitting in last place in the CAA with a 4-8 record. The good news is that home series’ against Towson and Hofstra, which both have 5-7 CAA records, are still on the schedule. There’s no more room for excuses or moral victories if JMU wants to avoid missing out on postseason play for a third-straight season.
It all comes down to execution for the Dukes. Their style of play will work and can carry them into the CAA tournament. When it’s clicking, it can win them games in this tournament. We haven’t seen the true potential of this lineup, yet. Key players get hot, but then a vital piece goes down to injury. It’s part of what has made watching this team frustrating at times.
Here’s why JMU is still a dangerous team in the CAA.
Enough options to make your head spin
I don’t know how Marlin Ikenberry does it. I’ve sat down a few times and played around with what I think the ideal JMU lineup would look like, but there are so many different scenarios and possibilities that I can’t decide and eventually give up.
There are the fixtures: Tre Dabney, Fox Semones, Brady Harju, Michael Morgan and DaVonn Griffin. The rest of the lineup can be flipped around, depending on who has the hot hand. I haven’t dissected other lineups in the CAA, but JMU has a lot of flexibility to work with, which could be a big advantage come tournament time.
Kyle Novak and Matt Dipasupil are similar hitters. They are both high-contact guys who are going to put the ball in the play and make things happen. They rarely strike out, can spray the ball and play good defense. If one goes cold, the other comes in and the dynamic of the lineup doesn’t really change. Facing a right-handed pitcher and want to small-ball your way to victory? Put them both in the lineup.
With Morgan, Harju, Novak, Semones and Dabney filling out the infield and Griffin holding down center field, that leaves David Willis, Callaway Sigler, Dom Cepullio and Conor Hartigan available to fill the corner outfield spots. Whether you’re looking to make the lineup more left-handed or right-handed dominant, the options are there. Need more power in the lineup? It’s there — Harry Brown can crush a baseball. Want to focus more on situational hitting? It’s there.
The Dukes are hitting .257 as a team, good for third-best in the CAA (just six points behind Elon, which ranks second. They’re near the top of the CAA in total bases, home runs and stolen bases. What does all that mean? It means this team can change a game in an instant. The offense hasn’t always shown up in sync for games, but when it comes tournament time and it turns into a win or go home scenario, the Dukes can throw a handful of different hitters to the plate and make things interesting.
What if JMU went “Johnny Wholestaff”?
I was at the St. Bonaventure game on Thursday night, watching Kevin Kelly and Shelton Perkins dominate on the mound, yet again, and got to thinking. If JMU can get into the CAA tournament, its pitching staff can wreak havoc.
Let me take you through my train of thought while sitting at the St. Bonaventure game:
“Wow, Kevin Kelly is really good.” (repeated about 20 times)
“Oh, Justin Showalter is coming into the game. Hey, what if he piggy-backed off Joe Williams on Sundays? That could be interesting.”
“Perkins is coming in! These hitters have no clue what pitch is coming. That ball started at his eyeballs! Why isn’t he a starting pitcher? Wait, maybe he can be.”
A real “opener” strategy wouldn’t be the way to go, although the idea of throwing Matt Marsili out in the first inning does fire me up. However, what if JMU took a page out of the San Diego Padres playbook?
The Padres were terrible last season (I know, I stayed up until 1 a.m. most nights writing about the team, don’t ask why). But, the Padres did find success when they turned the ball to Johnny Wholestaff, AKA a series of arms who went 2-3 innings apiece. JMU has enough quality arms to make something like this work in the CAA tournament.
As a team, JMU pitchers have the lowest ERA in the league (3.81), have the second-most strikeouts (380) and have allowed the third-lowest batting average (.235).
Nationally speaking, the Dukes rank 64th of 297 teams in WHIP (walks plus hits per inning), 41st in strikeouts per game (9.4), and 53rd in ERA. Not bad for a “small school.” Disclaimer: The NCAA website hasn’t been updated in a week, so numbers are slightly different now.
Why not flip the script? What if Shelton Perkins or Brett Ayer took the first 2-3 innings of a game and then gave way to Kevin Kelly or Nick Stewart? The bullpen arm goes max effort against the opposing team’s lineup once, then the ace of the staff comes in and if everything works out, the heart of the opposing lineup faces your best pitcher for the first time in the 4th or 5th inning, midway through the game. Before the ace has to go through the lineup for a third time, the backend arms can come in and slam the door shut.
If the strategy works, the Dukes get to the end of the CAA tournament with more fresh arms and the ability to play the matchups, when otherwise, the pitching options would be limited.
Maybe it’s a ridiculous idea or I’m missing key pieces of information and insight that would make this strategy null and void, but this is part of the reason why this year’s team is so interesting. There are so many puzzle pieces. All that’s left is to put the puzzle together.