Deeper Dukes Upbeat
JMU Tries To Atone For 2012
Posted: February 1, 2013
HARRISONBURG — It was pretty much the baseball season from you-know-where.
After being picked to win the league, James Madison went 16-35-2 and finished second-to-last in the 11-team Colonial Athletic Association, missing the conference tournament, which, in one of those adding-insult-to-injury situations, was held at the Dukes’ home field.
“That was pretty bad,” sophomore pitcher Patrick Toohers said.
Injuries also wiped out five players, four of whom had been named to an all-conference team at some point in their career; the fifth guy — pitcher D.J. Brown — got drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 39th round, even after missing the 2012 season with a torn labrum. The other injured Dukes were third baseman Ty McFarland (broken hand and broken thumb), first baseman Matt Tenaglia (ACL), infielder Conner Brown (labrum) and now-graduated pitcher Sean Tierney (pectoral). Center fielder/pitcher Johnny Bladel also missed time due to suspension.
“Definitely a lot of things didn’t go our way last year,” said McFarland, a junior and Turner Ashby High School graduate. “Sometimes baseball is like that, so it’s just how you react to it.”
Heading into the 2013 season — practice began last Friday — the reaction has been good. Even the league coaches believe typically strong Madison — it won CAA titles in 2008 and 2011 and pennants in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2011 — will rebound. In the preseason poll, they voted JMU to finish third behind 2012 champ North Carolina-Wilmington and Hofstra.
“I feel pretty good,” said JMU coach Spanky McFarland, entering his 16th season. “We had a good fall. We stayed pretty healthy overall. … Last year’s injuries forced us to use a lot of players, and they gained some valuable experience. What that creates is depth for this year.”
But back to the players’ reaction. Good may be too soft an adjective.
“I’m surprised we weren’t ranked higher honestly,” said senior outfielder Cole McInturff, the Dukes’ leadoff hitter who hit a team-best .360 in 2012. “… I just can’t wait to go out and practice. Just want to start playing and beating up on some teams and redeeming ourselves from last year.”
JMU’s projected one-through-four hitters — McInturff, McFarland, Bladel and Tenaglia — are all back. So is Toohers, who, after arriving at JMU last season as a walk-on freshman, ended up as a weekend starter midway through the season.
Now, the 6-foot-6, 230-pound sophomore right-hander — who said he went largely un-recruited out of high school — is JMU’s likely ace, with good command and a fastball that touched 90 mph in the fall. Toohers came in throwing in the mid-to-high 80s.
“He’s a big, imposing guy, and you’d think he’d probably throw 98,” Spanky McFarland said. “But he throws 87-90. He’s just around the [strike] zone. He can throw pitches for strikes: fastball, curveball, changeup. ...He doesn’t get rattled; he just pumps it in there.”
Toohers went 2-3 in 13 games (all starts) last season and led JMU with a 4.43 ERA. But the Dukes had the worst pitching staff in the CAA in 2012, finishing with a 6.53 ERA. Opposing teams also batted .304 against the Dukes.
The starters after Toohers are likely sophomore left-hander Luke Drayer, sophomore right-hander Michael Howerton and sophomore right-hander Ben Garner. The closer will be sophomore right-hander Chris Huffman, a Fort Defiance graduate.
“I feel a lot better this year than last year,” Toohers said. “Considering all the injuries we had last year and we were young — especially our pitching staff. We’re a lot more experienced. We have a lot more people coming back and more depth from last year.”
Notably, the offense.
The speedy McIntuff embodies a recent philosophy shift for JMU, which, after years of producing big-time power hitters like Kellen Kulbacki and Jake Lowery, has moved toward a more line drive-centric philosophy that emphasizes contact, more walks and fewer strikeouts. There’s also an emphasis on situational hitting and putting balls in the gap, allowing Madison to take advantage of its team speed.
“There won’t be as many home runs, but there won’t be as many strikeouts,” Spanky McFarland said. “And there will hopefully be some more walks.”
The impetus for the change was the Dukes’ poor performance against better pitching in the regionals. Last season, JMU hit just 20 home runs. In 2011, Lowery hit 24 by himself, and the Dukes had 80 as a team.
JMU still has some power, though. Tenaglia hit nine home runs and drove in 54 runs in 2011. Bladel, McFarland and senior catcher/infielder Bradley Shaban also can hit it out of the park.
But will the Dukes be able to redeem themselves after just their third losing season since 2002? They think so.
“I just have a really good feeling about this year,” McInturff said. “Obviously, everyone’s going to say that, but specifically this year.”
The Dukes open the season Feb. 15 with a three-game series at Coastal Carolina. Their home opener is Feb. 20 against Longwood at 4 p.m. After the series with Coastal, JMU plays 17 of its next 18 games at Veterans Memorial Park.