Marlin Ikenberry vs. Towson (copy)

JMU baseball head coach Marlin Ikenberry will lead the Dukes into CAA play this weekend when they face off against Elon.

On Friday, JMU baseball will begin its quest for its first CAA title since 2011. Over the last nine seasons, eight different teams have won the conference championship, and no clear frontrunner has emerged so far this year.

“Our expectations are high every year,” senior outfielder Adam Sisk said. “We’ve got a championship-caliber team, and everyone believes it … The fact that everyone comes to practice with their heads on straight, working hard every day will propel us throughout the rest of the year.”

As of now, Charleston leads the CAA with an 16-6 record, closely followed by UNCW and Hofstra at 14-6 and 9-4, respectively. JMU is currently in fifth place in the standings at a respectable 12-8, which isn’t far behind the top teams in the conference.

Based on Pythagorean Expectation, a metric that estimates how many wins a team should have based on run differential, JMU is the fifth-best team in the conference. The Dukes have an expected winning percentage of 61.6 percent, which considerably trails Charleston as well as Hofstra, Elon and UNCW. The Cougars have an expected winning percentage of close to 79 percent while the other three aforementioned teams are between 66 and 69.2 percent.

“I think UNCW and College of Charleston are the two top teams in the league,” head coach Marlin Ikenberry said. “We just have to be on our A-game when we play them. The biggest thing when we play them is being able to execute. If we execute the little things, everything falls into place.”

The adage “the cream rises to the top” is especially true in baseball due to the long season, and the numbers say JMU is poised to surge up the CAA standings. The Dukes have scored 118 runs and allowed just 93, a run differential that would be a significant improvement from last season if JMU can keep its pace. Still, this team knows it’s a long season and has a mindset of focusing on one series at a time.

“We’re going to be in a dogfight every week so we’ve just got to stay locked in,” redshirt freshman pitcher Nick Robertson said.

Last season, the Dukes outscored opponents by a slim margin: 339 to 326. This translates to an expected winning percentage of only 52 percent; JMU appears early on to be stronger than a year ago.

The Dukes have the fifth-best scoring offense in the CAA and are scoring 5.9 runs per game. However, the difference between JMU and the three teams directly ahead of it in runs per game isn’t statistically significant, as those other three teams are averaging between 6.0 and 6.1 runs per outing.

The pitching staff ranks in the middle of the conference, as the 4.7 runs surrendered per game and ERA of 3.61puts JMU sixth of nine teams in the CAA. Still, the coaches are pleased with the progress the pitchers have made after last year’s staff placed seventh in the conference in ERA.

“Our depth in our pitching staff has been amazing,” Ikenberry said. “Our pitching staff doesn’t give up a lot of runs, and if we tighten up our defense, I think we’re going to be a tough team to score runs on.”

JMU is getting sufficient run support but needs to improve its fielding to truly contend in the conference. The Dukes have the second-most errors in the conference with 34 and the second-lowest fielding percentage at 95.6 percent.

“We’re playing some guys in different positions,” Ikenberry said. “We moved around our defense a little bit in the past two weeks. We have some young guys playing in key positions. The biggest thing is protecting the baseball and not giving up free bases.”

The Dukes are a young and growing team comprised of promising underclassmen in starting roles. Four of the team’s five best batting averages belong to freshmen or sophomores, meaning this team could find sustained success starting this season.

“We haven’t played a lot of baseball,” Ikenberry said. “We’ve only played [22] games and we’ve still got hopefully 60 or 70 games in the season, so we’ll just get better as time goes on.”

On Friday night, JMU will face 11-10 Elon in a three-game weekend series.

“We’re very excited. We like opening up CAA play at home,” Sisk said. “We’re ready to get going on Friday night.”

Contact James Faris at farisja@dukes.jmu.edu. For more baseball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

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