Dukes Sputter Out

Rough Week Ends With Two CAA Losses

Posted: May 25, 2013

HARRISONBURG — It’s difficult to imagine a worse scenario for the James Madison baseball team than the one it faced heading into a Colonial Athletic Association tournament elimination game against Northeastern on Friday.

The Dukes, seeded last in the six-team tourney, had just come off a demoralizing – yet thrilling – 20-19 loss to William & Mary moments earlier. That game not only deflated JMU’s emotions but also consumed the bulk of a pitching staff that was already one of the worst in the league.

Plus, JMU was playing its third game in less than 48 hours, including two overnight delays. So, really, the Dukes were taking the field for the fifth time Friday morning after opening tourney play Wednesday night. For the better part of two days, they had slept sporadically, had no semblance of a routine, and, as the days wore on, were pitching on fumes.

So when Madison lost to No. 5-seed Northeastern 11-7 to end what was already an unlikely bid for the league’s tournament title, the message wasn’t so much about the Dukes’ second consecutive sub-.500 season or their 1-2 showing in this year’s tournament.

Rather, JMU coach Spanky McFarland was impressed that his team even made the tournament at all – and that it fought that hard once it got there.

“We started our tournament about three weeks ago,” McFarland said. “If we had lost any more games, we were in danger of not getting in the tournament. But we battled and we got in the tournament, so I’m proud of that. And I’m proud of how we played in this tournament.

“…Suspended games, lack of sleep, meals at all different hours, it was rough. It really was rough. But you know what? Our guys didn’t back down.”

The tourney was pretty representative of a roller-coaster season for the Dukes (25-30).

After they started the season at a promising 14-9, they lost their next 11 straight and appeared destined to miss the tournament for the second straight year, an even more embarrassing prospect given that Madison had bid $25,000 to host the tournament in 2012 and ’13. But then JMU won four of its next five and ended the regular season by winning four of six to qualify for the six-team tournament field.

During the tournament, the emotional swings got even more drastic.

Especially the hours from 9 p.m. Thursday to 11 a.m. Friday. The Dukes trailed No. 2-seed William & Mary 12-3 Thursday night when rain forced the game to be suspended in the third inning. When it resumed at 9 a.m. Friday, Madison scored nine straight runs to tie it at 12, then took a three-run lead entering the bottom of the ninth, only to lose by an eye-popping score of 20-19.

“I’ve never been a part of a game like that, where it’s just so many ups and downs and just going back and forth different ways” JMU senior catcher Bradley Shaban said. “It was just one of the most exciting games I’ve ever been a part of.”

Madison used six pitchers in trying to beat William & Mary and stay in the winners’ bracket of the double-elimination tournament. Then the Dukes used four more in getting eliminated by Northeastern, including two who threw roughly 50 pitches apiece in a 9-6 win over No. 3-seed Delaware less than 48 hours earlier.

And the Dukes’ thinning pitching staff wasn’t that good to begin with. Its team ERA of 6.23 is worst in the CAA by over half a run. Of the 10 pitchers JMU used in three tournament games, just two were juniors or seniors – and one of those, senior Johnny Bladel, is mainly a position player.

“College baseball works in cycles, and I think if you look at the top seeds in this tournament, you’re going to see that most of their pitchers are upperclassmen,” McFarland said. “That’s probably the most important thing you can have in a tournament is upperclassmen pitching.”

So, after two bad years in which the Dukes went a combined 41-64-2 – that came after JMU had four straight 30-plus win seasons, including CAA tourney titles in 2008 and ’11 – is next year when Madison will cycle upward?

James Madison graduates just three regular contributors, and only one of them – Bladel – was a pitcher. And while seniors Bladel (.319 average), Shaban (.287) and Casey Goss (.340) were three of the Dukes’ better hitters, Madison has plenty of big bats returning, including sophomore Chad Carroll, a first-team All-CAA pick and one of 46 semifinalists for the Gregg Olson National Breakout Player of the Year. JMU showed that offensive explosiveness with 35 runs in three tourney games.

“We pounded some good pitchers – we didn’t necessarily beat ’em, but we pounded ’em – and that’s the kind of pitchers you see in [NCAA tournament] regionals,” McFarland said. “We’re on track that way; we’re a year behind in the pitching department.”

McFarland has also said that his team is transitioning from a power-offense approach to a style that relies more on small ball, pitching and defense. But as that’s happened, the Dukes have had their first consecutive losing seasons under McFarland since his first two years, 1998-99 – and, of course, they were poorly timed with Madison hosting the tournament in the third and fourth year after Veterans Memorial Park was constructed.

First Game
James Madison            03   0  720 043 – 19 23 1
William & Mary              01(11) 031 004 – 20 22 0
Bladel, Church (3), Feehan (3), Cundiff (5), Drayer (6), Huffman (9) and Shaban; Farrell, Castner (4), Sheehan (4), Koehler (4), Wainman (8) and Hissey. W-Wainman (4-3). L-Huffman (4-5). HRs-JMU, Bladel (2), McFarland (4); W&M, Katz (4).

Second Game
Northeastern            020 115 101 – 11 14 2
James Madison       020 011 210 –    7   8 4
Cubarney, Cook (5), Maki (6), Foster (8) and Puttress; Howerton, Root (6), Church (6), Gunst (9) and San Martin, Merullo (7), Logan (9). W-Cook (3-1). L-Howerton (3-6). Sv-Foster (4).