Fox Semones

JMU baseball sophomore infielder Fox Semones rounds third base during the Dukes game against Elon.

It’s been a season of ups and downs for the Dukes and an upcoming test with the CAA leader will prove whether JMU is ready to take the next step toward contention. The Dukes haven’t had a winning season since 2011 and need to play well against the College of Charleston to stay above .500.

Charleston leads the conference at 22-9 overall with a 4-2 record in CAA play and a positive run differential of 2.6 runs per game. By comparison, JMU is 15-12, 2-4 in conference and has outscored opponents just 141 to 134 this year. The Dukes are currently eighth of nine CAA teams, but can easily climb out of the cellar with a few strong series.

This three-game road trip is the perfect midseason litmus test for head coach Marlin Ikenberry’s crew and is a great opportunity for the Dukes to put themselves back in the conversation of top CAA teams. JMU has shown flashes of promise but has battled inconsistency, as evidenced by the team’s middle of the road record.

JMU has lost four of its past six, including two of three games last weekend against Northeastern. Those two losses to the Huskies were by a combined 15 runs. Even more alarming, the Huskies have been outscored this season by an average of 2.2 runs per game, the worst mark in the conference by a considerable margin.

The Dukes haven’t strung more than three wins together since last May and won’t go far this season unless that changes. The Cougars provide tough competition, but JMU can use this upcoming series as a springboard forward instead of a potential setback. JMU has lost the series against Charleston in three of the past four seasons, but this is a great opportunity to turn their fortunes around.

After a look at the numbers, it’s no surprise Charleston is at the top of the CAA. The Cougars have outscored opponents 186 to 110 this season and have the an expected winning percentage of 74 percent, the highest mark in the conference.

Charleston’s offense leads the conference in total bases, doubles, home runs, slugging percentage and has struck out the fewest times. The team’s pitching staff has been top-notch, ranking first in the CAA in runs per game, ERA, earned runs per game, shutouts and home runs allowed. The Cougars also excel at fielding and have the least errors per game with the best fielding percentage in the conference.

For JMU to compete this weekend, the pitching staff will need to come out strong, as the Dukes are winless when allowing more than six runs. Additionally, JMU is undefeated when scoring seven or more, so a big outing at the plate would translate to success.

There’ve been numerous growing pains for JMU this season, especially on the defensive side of the field. The Dukes are tied for CAA lead in errors with 47 and have the lowest fielding percentage of CAA teams at 95.5 percent. When asked on March 18 if defense was the team’s biggest weakness, Ikenberry responded with one word: “Absolutely.”

If JMU can shore up its defense and field at an above-average level, its place in the standings will follow accordingly. The offense has been a bit inconsistent but can be near the top of the conference while the pitching staff appears to be the deepest it’s been in years.

At the end of the day, the Dukes will be judged not on talent or potential, but by the team’s place in the standings. JMU is positioned to compete better in 2018 than in years before, but the only opponents that matter are this year’s CAA teams, including Charleston.

“I think UNCW and College of Charleston are the two top teams in the league,” Ikenberry said earlier in the season. “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.”

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

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