Three Strikes: Old Dominion Makes Move, Charleston Clinches Title, Jacob Humphrey

Image credit: ODU 1B Matt Coutney (Photo by Keith Lucas)

Old Dominion Makes Move Toward Postseason

If there’s one thing that stands out about Old Dominion this season, it’s the eye-popping power numbers. 

The Monarchs have hit 100 home runs as a team in 2022 with eight regular season games to go, good for second nationally behind Tennessee, after hitting 105 round-trippers all of last season. 

Four players have double-digit home run totals in first baseman Matt Coutney (23 HR), outfielder Andy Garriola (19), outfielder Carter Trice (16) and outfielder/DH Robbie Petracci (11), with outfielder Thomas Wheeler (nine) and catcher Brock Gagliardi (eight) likely to join those ranks before the season is done. Coutney’s home run total not only has him among the national leaders but it’s also an Old Dominion single-season record for home runs in a season. 

For the last two seasons, ODU’s offense has been as good as any in college baseball at hitting the ball out of the ballpark. 

“I was asking somebody to look it up, (because) I don’t know how many teams in the (BBCOR) bat era have hit 100 home runs two years in a row,” said Old Dominion coach Chris Finwood of the rarified air his team occupies. 

Finwood’s intuition is correct, as it turns out. With Lincoln Ransom’s home run on Tuesday against Virginia Commonwealth, these Monarchs are the first team in the BBCOR bat era, which began with the 2011 season, to hit 100 home runs in back-to-back seasons. 

Throughout the season, on the back of its power-hitting lineup, Old Dominion has pretty consistently been a good team. It began the season ranked in the Top 25, a place it held until the end of March, and it hasn’t lost more than two games in a row at any point, which has helped it put together a 31-14 record overall. 

But for much of this season, it also looked like the Monarchs’ destiny was to be a good team that could out-slug just about any team in the country, but was limited in the other ways in which it could win games, and that might mean it ends up on the outside looking in for the postseason. 

In terms of Old Dominion’s place in the postseason pecking order, its RPI has long been stuck well behind those in the mix for at-large bids. As recently as a month ago, its RPI was 132, and at this time a week ago, it was 62, a big improvement but still out of at-large range. 

And on the field, pitching has been a season-long puzzle for the Monarchs. Losing starters Hunter Gregory and Ryne Moore from last season left big holes in the rotation, hard-throwing closer Noah Dean has been battling inconsistent performance and a nagging shoulder injury all season and lefthander Jason Hartline’s numbers aren’t what they were last season, when he was one of the best relievers in the country. 

Using all of that as context, it’s easy to see why last weekend’s series win on the road against Southern Mississippi could be a game-changer, however. 

For one, the Monarchs won with pitching. USM’s army of outstanding pitchers, as one would expect, largely held down ODU’s powerful lineup, so the Monarchs’ own pitching staff had to answer the bell. 

Friday’s 4-1 win over the Golden Eagles featured a typically strong outing from freshman lefthander Blake Morgan. He threw seven innings, giving up seven hits and one run with one walk and six strikeouts. As ODU has fished around for answers on the mound this season, Morgan has been a constant, and that’s allowed his role to grow in importance. 

On the season, Morgan has a 0.68 ERA, 57 strikeouts compared to seven walks and a .206 opponent batting average in 52.2 innings, so Friday’s outing was nothing new, but this was really Morgan’s first test in an environment as hostile as the one in Hattiesburg and he didn’t flinch. 

“He’s unflustered by moments, and he seems to have a knack for making big pitches when he needs to,” Finwood said of Morgan. “He hasn’t had a ton of moments like that yet, but he had a few in that game and came through with flying colors. So I was really proud of his performance there in a tough place to pitch.”

In a 4-3 win on Saturday, starter Nick Pantos (6-0, 3.68) gave up three runs in 4.2 innings, but lefty reliever Jacob Gomez (5.54 ERA, 37.1 IP) picked him up by throwing 4.1 scoreless innings to finish the game. Even in Sunday’s 5-4 loss in 10 innings, righthander Sam Armstrong (2-2, 5.72) turned in arguably his best start of the year and Hartline threw 2.1 scoreless innings, giving him 4.1 scoreless for the entire weekend. 

“We knew we would have to pitch real well because you weren’t going to score 10 runs like we have been, but just had to score one more than them,” Finwood said. “The first two days we were able to do that. All three games were really close and pretty well played.”

The USM series win also did wonders for ODU’s metrics situation. As of Wednesday morning, the Monarchs are 48 in RPI—down a few spots after dropping a game to VCU Tuesday—and they’re 6-3 against the RPI top 50, which compares favorably with most of the other bubble teams in a similar place in RPI, including conference foes who happen to be on the bubble like Texas-San Antonio, Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee State. 

With one important series win, Old Dominion is in the conversation, but there’s still plenty of work to be done. 

One impressive weekend on the mound doesn’t mean that the pitching questions have gone away altogether, and the team’s ERA in conference play even after giving up nine runs in three games against USM is still an even 6.00. The key will be keeping that momentum on the mound the next two weekends. 

Also, ODU is currently seventh in the C-USA standings with a 13-11 record. Even if its RPI and other metrics are in a good place, it’s likely going to need to finish at least a couple of spots higher to truly receive serious at-large consideration. But with only conference series against Marshall (RPI 182) and Western Kentucky (RPI 222) left in front of it, winning enough games to move up the standings and maintaining a good enough RPI go hand-in-hand. 

“With Marshall and Western (Kentucky) left conference-wise, that’s going to hurt us in the RPI thing,” Finwood said. “We’ve just got to win every one of those to have a chance almost.”

The 2022 Old Dominion team isn’t all that far off from the 2021 version in terms of talent, but a non-conference schedule filled with teams that have turned out to have RPIs well into the 200s and a deeper, more competitive C-USA from top to bottom means that ODU has had to work harder this year to get in position to make the postseason. 

The hope for the Monarchs now is that a veteran team, most of which was around for that postseason run last season, can get across the finish line. 

College of Charleston Clinches CAA Title with Room to Spare

With a 7-2 win Sunday over UNC-Wilmington, College of Charleston (32-15, 18-3) clinched the CAA regular season title with two whole weekends of conference play left by virtue of being five games up on second-place James Madison and holding the tiebreaker between the teams. 

Charleston’s only other CAA regular season title came in 2015—recall that it has only been a member of the conference since the 2014 season—and it is the first team this season that isn’t a member of a league with divisions to clinch a conference title. 

The dominance the Cougars have shown in the CAA this year is staggering. They lost one series in early April to Hofstra on the road, but since then have swept four of the five series in which they have played, with the only loss in that stretch coming to UNCW last Friday. 

It also represents a massive turnaround for a team that didn’t get off to the best of starts. At one point in early March, the Cougars lost five consecutive games, three in a sweep at the hands of High Point and two against Pennsylvania in the midweek. 

That stretch dropped Charleston to 7-6 on the season. The following weekend things still weren’t perfect in taking two of three against Massachusetts-Lowell, but a midweek win against Texas and a series win against East Carolina followed, and suddenly, the Cougars were off and running. 

Having locked up the No.1 seed in the CAA Tournament so early, it will be interesting to see how Charleston chooses to approach the final seven games of the regular season. 

In some years, the Cougars might’ve been inclined to keep their foot on the gas to make a run at an at-large bid, but with the schedule in front of them, that’s almost certainly off the table. Their current RPI of 54 puts them theoretically in the hunt, but every game left on their schedule before the CAA Tournament is against a team with an RPI of 243 or worse. Long story short, there’s essentially nowhere to go but down in RPI against that slate. 

Given that reality, it’s all about setting up for the CAA Tournament, however Chad Holbrook and his staff define that. Perhaps it’s playing the final seven games straight up in an effort to keep everyone sharp or maybe it’s giving some strategic days off to some players who need them or scaling back innings on the mound the rest of the way. 

It’s been a season to remember for College of Charleston already, even if it has now created the inconvenience of forcing the Cougars to wait a few more weeks before trying their hand at making it even sweeter with a regional appearance. 

The Brutal Efficiency of Massachusetts-Lowell’s Jacob Humphrey

Massachusetts-Lowell freshman Jacob Humphrey isn’t the national leader in stolen bases. That distinction belongs to Texas Southern’s Johnathon Thomas, who has 52 on a team that has swiped 198, which also leads the country. 

But Humphrey is, however, the most efficient base thief among those in the top five in the country. He’s swiped 41 bases in 42 tries, a stolen base rate of 97.6%. (As an aside, Enrique Bradfield Jr. of Vanderbilt leads the nation in stolen bases among those who haven’t been caught, with 34, and Purdue’s Curtis Washington Jr. is second on that particular list, going 28-for-28).

It took Humphrey a while to get going, as he had just two games in which he had a stolen base among his first 11 appearances, but beginning on March 12, he’s stolen at least one base in 24 of the last 35 games. Twice he’s stolen five bases in a game, and he had four stolen bases in an April 17 game at home against Hartford, which is also the only game in which he’s been caught stealing. 

You can’t steal bases if you don’t get on base, so it’s also no surprise that Humphrey is effective at the plate as well. He’s hitting .345/.466/.429, and he not only leads the River Hawks in hitting but also in walks with 33. 

Humphrey has already set the UMass-Lowell single-season record for stolen bases, which was previously 35 by Steve Lane in 1990. The all-time program record is 85, set by Tim Manton, who played from 2005-08. 

If Humphrey keeps up this kind of pace, he’ll set that record at some point next season, and even if he doesn’t, it’s still a virtual lock that he’ll break it at some point. And given that he’s just a freshman, it’s entirely likely that he resets that record in a nearly unreachable place.

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