The two preseason favorites in the Colonial Athletic Association will match up in the first weekend of conference action as James Madison travels to UNCW to begin a three-game baseball series with game times of 4 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
While the Dukes were the preseason favorite in the CAA and the Seahawks were just behind in second, the series matches a pair of teams off to slower than anticipated starts for different reasons.
JMU (5-7-1) has been slowed by missing parts combined with a pitching staff relying heavily on youth early in their college careers. Offseason injuries to first baseman Matt Tenaglia and closer D.J. Brown were combined with the indefinite suspension of outfielder Johnny Bladel and a broken hand for Tenaglia's replacement, Ty McFarland, who was one of the CAA's top hitters early in the season. Tenaglia, Bladel and McFarland were each returning All-CAA performers and were slated to be the heart of the lineup.
Brown was one of the top two returning pitchers for the Dukes and personally accounted for 17 percent of the team's total innings pitched last year. Bladel was the leading candidate to fill in at closer after Brown's injury. In their absence, freshmen have accounted for 52 percent of the team's total innings pitched this year.
Seven has turned out to be the magic number for the Dukes early in the season. In each of its last five losses, JMU has scored exactly six runs while also notching less than six runs in the first two losses. In each of the five victories posted this season, Madison has recorded seven or more runs on offense.
At 3-9, UNCW owns the worst overall record in the CAA. However, that can be partially attributed to a challenging early schedule with six losses against top-100 RPI teams, including a three-game sweep at the hands of Ole Miss of the Southeastern Conference.
The Seahawks were expected to possess one of the league's top offenses but instead have hit .228 as a team out of the gate while averaging just three and a half runs per game. Thomas Pope is batting .333 with three doubles and a triple. Jake Koenig is the only other player over .300, also at .333.
Meanwhile, the UNCW staff has posted a 4.24 team earned run average. The group has been led by starters Tyler McSwain and Matt Batts, who will be the first two starters against the Dukes. Two have combined for a 1.80 ERA and 38 strikeouts while throwing 40 of the team's 104 innings.
The series also features a return for the Dukes to Brooks Field, the site where they captured the 2011 CAA Championship. After eight years at Brooks Field, the tournament site will switch this year to JMU's Eagle Field at Veterans Memorial Park.
JMU owns a 54-35 advantage in the all-time series while capturing six of the last seven meetings. The Dukes won all four games in 2011, beginning with a three-game sweep at Eagle Field in late April. JMU won by scores of 12-2, 6-5 and 9-6 in a sweep that came as part of a 10-game CAA winning streak headed into the conference tournament. The teams then met again at Brooks Field with JMU claiming a 13-7 triumph to advance to the title game against Old Dominion.
Friday, March 9, 4 p.m.
JMU - Sean Tierney, r-Sr., LHP (2-1, 2.60 ERA)
UNCW - Tyler McSwain, Sr., RHP (1-2, 1.89 ERA)
Saturday, March 10, 2 p.m.
JMU - Patrick Toohers, Fr., RHP (0-0, 3.60 ERA)
UNCW - Mat Batts, r-So., LHP (0-2, 1.71 ERA)
Sunday, March 11, 2 p.m.
JMU - Evan Scott, Sr., RHP (0-1, 7.11 ERA)
UNCW - Jordan Ramsey, Fr., RHP (0-1, 5.06 ERA)