JMU baseball won its opening doubleheader of the season on Friday against Norfolk State 16-5 and 12-2. The Dukes' offense and pitching dominated in its first two games of action this season.
The bleachers were full of excited Dukes fans at Eagle Field at Veterans Memorial Park as junior pitcher Kevin Kelly’s first pitch was hit foul for a strike to start the new season. After the first two outs of the inning, sophomore catcher Michael Morgan threw out a runner attempting to steal second to close out the first. From the second inning on, Kelly’s pitches were spot-on for the rest of the outing, as 55 of the 84 pitches from the Duke’s ace were strikes.
The hype around Kelly from his summer spent with the Orleans Firebirds of the Cape Cod Baseball League (CCBA) was felt throughout the stadium. Over the summer, Kelly pitched to a 1.25 ERA, struck out 27 opposing batters and held an .184 opposing batting average. In his 2019 JMU debut, no runs were scored while he was on the mound.
“I thought Kev was great,” head coach Marlin Ikenberry said. “He got five innings and threw eighty pitches; we just felt with how we were extending the lead the way we were, we could go to our pen.”
JMU struck first with RBI singles from junior first baseman Brady Harju and sophomore designated hitter Conor Hartigan to give the Dukes an early 2-0 lead in the first inning. With the bases loaded, freshman shortstop Nick Zona brought in two more runs off a single to double the Dukes’ lead at 4-0.
JMU lead 6-0 heading into the fifth inning, but it was then that the Dukes, and especially the freshmen, impressed the crowd. With the bases loaded, freshman right fielder Dom Cepullio drove in two with a double into left-center field. Three more runners scored off of a double from Novak. RBIs from freshman catcher Travis Reifsnider and freshman third baseman Trevon Dabney gave the Dukes a 14-0 lead against Norfolk State after five innings.
“That’s how we play,” Dabney said. “We all came together, we all competed together and that’s what you want to see out of this team.”
Norfolk State would score in the later innings, but the Dukes’ offensive performance was too much for the Spartans to overcome as JMU took the first game 16-5. Game two of the doubleheader started 30 minutes later as sophomore pitcher Nick Stewart took the mound and played out much like the first game did. Stewart started shaky, walking the opening batter and hitting the second batter. But with the bases loaded, the Dukes escaped the inning with a clutch double play and regrouped.
Pitching was key for the Dukes in the second game, as Stewart and JMU’s bullpen would combine for 20 strikeouts in the nine innings of play. Stewart’s performance improved after the first inning. The Ashburn, Virginia native struck out the side in the top of the second inning and did so again in the top of the fourth.
Stewart was called off the mound in the fifth inning as junior pitcher Brett Ayer came in to relieve Stewart with one out. Ayer and the Dukes would give up two runs to NSU in the fifth, but from the sixth inning on, Ayer caught fire. The junior reliever would go on to retire the side in the top of the sixth inning and would finish the night by, unknowingly, breaking his personal career high for strikeouts in a game with ten total.
“Honestly, it’s surprising,” Ayer said. “I’ve never had an outing like this before and it was a lot of fun out there.”
JMU’s offense gave its pitchers the cushion they needed to finish the night by producing seven runs in the bottom of the eighth inning. An RBI triple by junior outfielder Fox Semones, a double from junior first baseman Harry Brown and a single from Dabney gave JMU a 12-2 lead over the Spartans going into the final inning of the day.
In the top of the ninth, sophomore pitcher Nick Robertson took the mound and struck out the side to win the ballgame. Robertson’s three K’s in the game gave JMU 20 strikeouts in game two of its doubleheader — the Dukes had 30 strikeouts in both games combined.
“At first, I was a little worried because the guys had a little bit of the first game jitters,” Ikenberry said. “And that’s ok. I was really pleased with how we played defense, how we pitched and how we extended the lead.”
JMU (2-0, 0-0 CAA) will play its final game in its three-game series against Norfolk State Saturday at 2 p.m. at Eagle Field at Veterans Memorial Park.
Contact Jordan Simal at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more baseball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.