It’s official: For the seventh season in a row, JMU baseball will finish the regular season either at or below .500. At times, there was reason to believe this would be the year the streak of sub .500 seasons would snap, but in the end, this season differed little from the previous two under head coach Marlin Ikenberry.
History tends to repeat itself when things don’t change, which is why the stark similarities between the 2017 and 2018 seasons should be troubling to JMU baseball fans. Last season, the Dukes were 24-22 with five games to play. JMU needed three wins to secure its first winning record since 2011 and two to snap the six-year streak of losing seasons.
Instead, the Dukes ran out of gas and dropped their final five, finishing 24-27. The disappointing finish was somewhat easy to explain away thanks to a lack of depth in the pitching staff and a slew of injuries down the stretch. This year was supposed to be different, thanks to a younger and healthier rotation of pitchers.
“We have more depth in the pitching staff [this year],” Ikenberry said in April. “Last year, we didn’t have a lot of depth and that’s why we struggled down the stretch.”
Expectations were higher this season, which makes JMU’s seven-game losing streak from late April to early May bitterly disappointing. The Dukes went winless from April 25 to May 11 and were outscored 48-20, an average of four runs per game. Factor in the four prior games in which the Dukes went 1-3, and the team’s record in that span drops from 0-7 to 1-10.
This wasn’t supposed to happen — JMU was supposed to be deeper, more talented and mentally tougher than in years past. Regardless of what happens in the upcoming weekend series against Towson, the Dukes will end the year with a sub-.500 record and will miss out on postseason play.
The brutal irony is this: For the first time since 2013, the CAA baseball championship tournament will take place in Harrisonburg, but the Dukes will be nowhere to be found. If JMU was sixth or higher among the nine teams in the conference, it’d at least have a shot to take home its first conference title since 2011.
Instead, the Dukes have been eliminated from postseason contention and will fight with Towson for seventh place in the CAA. JMU baseball fans who aren’t frustrated with this season’s conclusion simply aren’t paying attention.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the Dukes, who still have a chance to finish with their most wins since 2013. Promising underclassmen include infielders Michael Morgan — who leads the team in batting average — and Josh Jones — who was off to a stellar start before a huge slump during the team’s seven-game losing streak.
There are plenty of young pieces to build around, but JMU needs to be much more consistent and competitive next season. Inexperience isn’t the reason the Dukes fell from 21-19 to 23-26 — situational hitting, or the lack thereof, is.
A look at the CAA standings reveals specific areas for significant improvement in all three phases of the game. After early struggles, the Dukes are tied for sixth in the conference in fielding percentage and have committed the fourth-most errors. Though still a weak point, JMU got better in this area from the beginning of the season, as positions solidified and defensive communication improved.
JMU’s pitching got much better from last season, as the team’s ERA dropped from 5.57 to 3.91. In 2017, that mark would’ve led the conference, but this season, it puts JMU in a tie for fifth place. Despite change for the better in most pitching categories, JMU’s staff remains average at best in the CAA.
For most of the season, hitting has been JMU’s greatest strength, evidenced by the team’s .284 batting average and .466 slugging percentages that put it second in the conference. Still, the Dukes rank fifth in runs per game and total bases and sixth in hits per game, which is underwhelming considering their batting average.
Because so much of the game is situational, there’s not much a manager can do when a team hits well when it doesn’t matter but can’t put bat on ball when it does. JMU has a losing record in games decided by two runs or less this season, and it’s hard to expect a team to finish above .500 when it seems to be on the wrong end of close matches.
This offseason will be a pivotal one for JMU baseball, as it’s safe to say the string of losing seasons and the perpetual postseason drought is getting old. The main points of improvement for this team should be closing out tight games and situational hitting and pitching, which is easier said than done. What’s encouraging — or discouraging, depending on one’s perspective — is that it’s not what’s on the field that needs to be changed, it’s what’s between the ears.
CORRECTION (5/18 at 8:39 p.m.): We changed the first sentence to say that the team will finish at or below .500. Originally, it said that JMU would finish below .500, but if the Dukes win out, they will finish at .500.