Win = Tourney

Despite Poor Season, Dukes On Brink Of Colonial Slot

Posted: May 15, 2014

JMU pitcher Dylan Horne throws against Northeastern during Sunday's game at Veterans Memorial Park. The Dukes are 7-10 in the CAA and still have a good chance at making the league tourney. (Photo by Jason Lenhart / DN-R)

HARRISONBURG — James Madison baseball coach Spanky McFarland said he is willing to shave his roughly 30-year-old moustache in exchange for a Colonial Athletic Association championship.

“I’d shave my body for a CAA title,” McFarland said Wednesday in his Memorial Hall office. “It’s just hair.”

Players are on board, too, for a public execution of McFarland’s trademark lip decor, which appears to honor, at least in spirit, Groucho Marx, Magnum P.I. and Civil War generals. Its removal would be a light moment in a nightmare season in which the Dukes are just 16-32 and have an ERA ranked 290th out of 296 Division I teams.

“You know, at the end of the season, it tends to get pretty stressful,” said senior third baseman Ty McFarland, Spanky’s son. “So any time you can do something like that to relax the mood and maybe just bring a little bit of extra energy to the team, it can always help.”

JMU could use the boost this weekend in its final series of the regular season: a three-game set at CAA rival Delaware. The Dukes (7-10 in the Colonial) need to win just one game to make the six-team CAA tournament, which starts May 21 at Brooks Field in Wilmington, N.C.

Can Madison — which has been swept twice and had six losing streaks of three or more games this season — win one game?

“I believe we can because we’ve been in close situations throughout the year,” said junior right-hander Chris Huffman, who is 5-6 with a 5.51 ERA in a team-best 81⅓ innings. “In some of our games, we came out on top, and some of them we haven’t. But I believe we’re ready enough mentally to go in there, and prepared to take at least one game.”

Delaware (22-24, 8-9) is potentially a good matchup for JMU. The Blue Hens haven’t pitched well, either, and have a team ERA of 5.50, second worst in the CAA, ahead of only Madison. But Delaware’s strength-of-schedule rating (106) isn’t as good as JMU’s (62).

The Dukes lost several pitchers to injury this season, including Ben Garner (wrist), Trey Jones (Tommy John surgery) and J.T. Root (left the team for family reasons). That forced JMU to use young pitchers (who haven’t pitched well) while some of the veterans have underperformed, hence the abominable 7.57 ERA in 48 games.

McFarland said JMU has enough pitching to win at least one in Newark, Del., this weekend — Game 1 is today at 3 p.m. — but he has concerns about the conference tournament, if the Dukes can get in.

Right now, they would. JMU is in sixth place in the eight-team league, ahead of Hofstra (19-23, 7-11) and 2013 champion Towson (22-25, 4-13). If the Dukes sweep Delaware (currently in fourth place) and some teams ahead of JMU lose, it’s possible they could be as high as the third seed. UNC-Wilmington is in third place, and Northeastern is in fifth. They play each other this weekend.

“We have enough [pitching] definitely to get in the tournament,” McFarland said. “Once we get in the tournament, to be honest, we’ve got enough for a couple games, but we’re going to have to win one with the bats, no doubt about it.”

JMU’s offense has been adequate. The Dukes are hitting .276 as a team, which is third best in the CAA. William & Mary is No. 1 and the only squad hitting over .300 (.318). But JMU has played most of the season without left fielder Chad Carroll, the CAA Preseason Player of the Year, because of an elbow injury. His absence forced McFarland to move Josh Wyatt, a second baseman, into the outfield. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Dukes, in addition to having the worst pitching, have the worst defense in the CAA.

JMU also lost outfielder Ky Parrott to a shoulder injury after a collision. Parrott, a freshman, was taken in the 26th round by the Milwaukee Brewers in last year’s major league draft.

“At times, we can play like the best team in the conference,” said Ty McFarland, JMU’s leading hitter, with a .315 average, nine home runs and 33 RBIs. “And at times, we can play like the worst team in the conference, which is probably why we’re toward the middle of the conference. And I think that’s just one thing we need to improve on in our last few games of our season if we want to get hot at the right time.”

And that’s where a tournament format (again, if the Dukes can get in) may help JMU, according to Spanky McFarland. The briefness of a tournament, compared to a long season, could hide some of Madison’s shortcomings.

“Baseball’s not really a tournament sport,” McFarland said. “The best team is the team that wins the regular season. But that being said … a lot of things can happen in a tournament that don’t necessarily play out in the regular season. There could be weather issues, like there was last year. There could be umpire calls, there could be bad hops — just a lot of different things that, over time, it all evens out over a regular season. But in a short tournament, stuff like that can give you a big advantage.”

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