Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Nick Stevens
The NCAA baseball season is just two weeks old, yet James Madison University freshman Chase DeLauter has two walk-off hits to his name, while three CAA schools (Delaware, Towson, Hofstra) have two or fewer wins this year. But while DeLauter’s start to his collegiate career is noteworthy, the JMU Diamond Dukes are currently riding a five-game winning streak thanks to a complete team effort over the weekend.
The Dukes welcomed Quinnipiac to Harrisonburg last weekend, a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference team that not only reached the NCAA Regionals last season, but is also picked to finish second in the MAAC this year, with Baseball America believing the Bobcats have the talent to find themselves in Regional bracket again in 2020.
Led by phenomenal pitching performances and a Sunday afternoon offensive outburst, JMU swept the Bobcats, climbing above .500 on the young season. The Diamond Dukes then picked up a midweek win against in-state foe VMI on Tuesday by a score of 4-2, giving the Dukes a +19 run differential during their current five-game win streak.
Here are this week’s three big takeaways from Veterans Memorial Park.
Pitching, pitching, pitching
One of the bigger question marks surrounding this team entering the 2020 season was how would the year’s pitching staff produce after losing five key members, including four to the MLB draft. The early results are positive, yet we’re still far from seeing the potential of these arms. That’s what makes this staff so exciting to follow.
RHP Nick Stewart was dominant on Friday night, pitching six shutout innings and striking out seven Quinnipiac hitters. When Stewart found himself in trouble, he took control of the next at-bat and won just about every battle. Putting pressure on the junior pitcher only made him better on the mound, a clear sign of the big strides Stewart has made this offseason. His name is sure to rise up draft boards as the season progresses.
As impressive as his start was, RHP Justin Showalter took it up a notch on Saturday, throwing a complete game shutout, allowing just one walk and one hit while striking out six. Showalter has been right on the verge on taking his game to the next level for a while and Saturday’s outing could be the key to unlocking that progression. His ability to produce weak contact and keep the ball on the ground thanks to the movement he can generate with his pitches will take him a long way.
Tuesday’s trio of Liam McDonnell, Grayson Jones, and Lliam Grubbs put together a strong outing, allowing two runs and striking out 13 Keydet hitters en route to a victory. Bullpen depth behind senior Brett Ayer (4 IP, 0 ER, 6 K on Friday) will be critical for success in the CAA and we’ve seen a few arms show improvements from 2019 as they look to fill those roles.
Go ahead and get excited about Chase DeLauter
The Dukes are eight games into their 2020 schedule and the freshman out of West Virginia has at least one hit in each contest. On Friday night, he broke a 0-0 tie in the bottom of the 10th inning with a walk-off hit. His very next at-bat came on Saturday afternoon, a plate appearance that ended with an opposite field home run. He concluded the weekend with his second walk-off hit against Quinnipiac, a line-drive double into the gap to score Nick Zona and win the game.
DeLauter is hitting .429 with a .487 on-base percentage and 1.116 OPS through eight games. He is tied for the team lead in extra-base hits (4) and walks (4) and leads the way with 11 RBI. His hands are quick enough through the zone to turn on inside pitches and punch them into right field and he’s strong enough to send balls the other way. His approach at the plate and ability to pick up pitches will be a major asset once he enters conference play.
Oh yeah, he also pitches. There are a few things in his delivery that more advanced hitters will take advantage of when CAA play starts, but he has just two starts under his belt and there’s plenty of time to settle in on the mound. After giving up two quick runs on Sunday, DeLauter allowed one hit over his final three innings. It’s going to take a lot to rattle this freshman.
The offense is fun
Injuries had a major impact on last year’s lineup, a unit that had no issues in getting on base, but struggled to bring home runs. The 2019 Dukes ranked 4th in the CAA with a .255 team average and second with a .358 OBP, but ranked 6th in runs scored and 8th in extra-base hits.
This year’s offense is more experienced and much deeper. It has also seen just one appearance from last year’s offensive leader, Tre Dabney.
Nick Zona is back after missing the second half of the 2019 season. He ranks second on the team with .423 average and he’s reached base in 50% of his at-bats. Zona takes professional at-bats by forcing pitchers to throw him a pitch he likes and fouling off the junk he doesn’t want. Every coach in the country would love to have Zona as their No. 9 hitter in the lineup, a role he is thriving in with the Dukes.
Fox Semones is out to make his senior season his best in Harrisonburg. In what feels like his 15th season with the Dukes, Semones is hitting .364 with a .563 OBP and three home runs. He’s been hit by a pitch seven times already, ranking among the top five in the nation. Semones took a long time to get going last season, but that isn’t the case in 2020. He also leads the team with six stolen bases.
Sunday’s lineup featured what could become one of the top lineups in the CAA. By moving DeLauter to the DH role (pitched that day), Dabney to left field, regular DH Kyle Novak to first base, and Brady Harju to the bench, the Dukes featured a lineup without a major weakness 1-9. Novak handled first base very well, including tumbling into the visitor’s dugout to make a magnificent catch.
Finding a way to get the best hitters into the lineup, while ensuring the defense is sound, will require some creativity when everyone is at full strength, but the amount of depth on this roster has become a real strength of the team.
Elsewhere around the diamond, catcher Michael Morgan threw out three runners on Friday and has caught four runners on the season. Freshman Ethan Rothstein also nailed a runner at second over the weekend as the JMU catching staff continue to impress behind the plate.
Senior outfielder DaVonn Griffin is hitting .333 with a .448 OPB this season. I’ve been a big believer of Griffin since his freshman season, but he hit just .229 and .205 in each of the last two seasons. Maybe this is the year.
JMU welcomes in Rider for a three-game set this weekend. Rider is 4-2 with a series sweep of Charleston Southern and 1-2 mark against East Tennessee State last weekend. The Dukes are 8-3 against Rider all-time, with all 11 games being played in Harrisonburg. The two schools haven’t faced off since 2001. Baseball America predicts a 7th place finish in the MAAC for Rider, with Preseason Freshman of the Year Jake Andrey holding down first base and closing duties out of the bullpen.