If last week’s series against CAA-leading College of Charleston truly defined who JMU baseball is, it looks like this will be the team’s seventh losing season in a row. The Dukes faced the toughest test of the year last week and were swept by the 26-9 Cougars, though the three losses were by a combined four runs.
“Right now [Charleston is] the top team in the conference and they’ve gotten off to a good start,” senior outfielder Adam Sisk said. “[But] we’re right there. We’re right there in every game.”
The Dukes are close but not quite there — promising but inconsistent. This team has shown it can hang with some of the best teams in the conference but coming away with victories in close matches has proven to be tough for JMU.
“A hit here, a hit there changes the whole series,” head coach Marlin Ikenberry said. “You look at their team versus our team and they’re all juniors and seniors and we’re playing four or five freshmen in the lineup.”
This team is young with underclassmen like freshmen infielders Josh Jones and Michael Morgan and sophomore infielders Harry Brown and Fox Semones in key roles, and it’s reasonable to expect growing pains. This season, JMU is 7-12 against teams with a winning record.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys and a lot of old guys, but I don’t think that matters,” Sisk said. “Everyone on this team is a good ball player, that’s why we’re here.”
With about half the season in the books, the Dukes sit at 17-16 but last place in the conference with a 3-7 record in CAA play. There’s clearly talent on the team, but it’s uncommon to see pitchers, hitters and fielders all clicking at the same time. It’s like a frustrating game of Whack-A-Mole, where the team focuses one on area of weakness and sees improvement there only to see another phase of the game falter.
“We’ll have the offense one night and pitching the other night, it’s all bits and pieces,” sophomore pitcher Kevin Kelly said. “If we can get it all together, [things will improve] for us.”
The Dukes have proved they can pour on runs, shown by back-to-back 21- and 14-run performances in early March. However, neither of those stellar outings at the plate carried over against tougher teams like Charleston, in which the Dukes scored just seven runs in the three-game series.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t work out for you,” Sisk said. “That’s why it’s important to come back the next day and play just as hard, if not harder. If you don’t worry about the things you can’t control, good things are going to happen.”
It’s clear JMU needs to be more consistent from behind the plate and in front of it. Until the Dukes execute at a high level in all three phases of the game at once, it’s tough to see this team passing more seasoned teams like Charleston in the standings.
“Pitching and defense wins, and we’ve just got to get some big hits in scoring position,” Ikenberry said. “We’ve talked a lot about our approach … [which] needs to get better as the season goes on.”
The beautiful and infuriating part of baseball is that the entire sport revolves around situational play. Extra base hits and home runs matter little when up by eight runs, while a single with runners on base in a tie game can be huge.
“[We need to] get guys more comfortable in those situations,” Ikenberry said. “We have data to show them what we need to get better on. Hitting with runners with scoring position and [our] two-strike approach is what sticks out to me.”
JMU has struggled mightily so far in conference play, but by focusing on situational hitting, pitching and fielding, the consistency will come with time. The team clearly isn’t satisfied with its subpar conference record and listening to the players talk about how they’re seeing improvement every day in practice should be encouragement to fans.
“When a big pressure situation comes in, all the fans get on the edge of their seat,” Sisk said. “All the fans are nervous and excited, but for us, it’s just another at bat … Whatever the situation, if you treat it just like another at bat and you don’t try and do too much, you can be successful. Situational hitting is hard, but if you trust yourself, it’s just like any other situation.”