CAA Baseball Championship: Diamond Hawks a solid top seed

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The field is set for the 2016 Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Baseball Championship, which will be held May 25-28 at The Ballpark at Patriots Point in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.

After finishing the regular season with a 16-6 mark atop the CAA and 37-15 record overall, UNCW earned a first-round bye as top seed at the tournament.

Nick Feight. Photos courtesy- UNCW Athletics
Nick Feight. Photos courtesy- UNCW Athletics

The six-team, double-elimination event gets underway on Wednesday, May 25 as fourth-seeded James Madison (23-29, 13-11 in CAA) faces No. 5 Northeastern (29-25, 12-11 in CAA) at noon. No. 3 Elon (25-27, 13-10 in CAA) takes on No. 6 College of Charleston (29-24-1, 12-12 in CAA) at 3:30 p.m. The losers of the first two games will meet in an elimination contest at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.

Top-seeded UNCW (37-15, 16-6 in CAA) takes on the James Madison/Northeastern winner at noon on Thursday, May 26.

“The players have had a tremendous year and we’re excited for the postseason,” said UNCW Coach Mark Scalf. “They’ve shown up every day for us and have given us great effort and that’s all you can ask for. I don’t see them doing anything different this week. We’re certainly going into Charleston to try and compete to defend our championship.”

With a 29-3 mark at their home ballpark this season, UNCW is just 8-12 on the road and 5-5 over their last 10 games. They have yet to play on a neutral site as they prepare for the CAA Championship in Charleston.

Despite leveling off towards the back end of the season thanks to three straight road trips over the past week, the Seahawks looked relaxed and back into the swing of things ahead of their final workout leading into Tuesday’s practice on campus.

Scalf, who is in his 25th season as head of the program, earned his seventh CAA Coach of the Year honor. He opened the season by winning his 800th game and has qualified the Seahawks for the conference tournament in each of his seasons with the program.

UNCW placed 10 players on the all-conference squads, including five first-team picks, including sophomore Brian Mims, junior Daniel Stack and senior Steven Linkous. Ryan Foster shared CAA Pitcher of the Year honors, while Nick Feight was named CAA Player of the Year.

Every game of the 2016 CAA Baseball Championship will be video streamed live for free in high definition on CAA.TV.

Balanced pitching staff key to Diamond Hawks success

Senior right-hander Ryan Foster is the game one starter and brings a ton of veteran experience to the mound in UNCW’s CAA Baseball Championship opener.

Ryan Foster.
Ryan Foster.

In his final outing during the regular season, Foster ran his record to 12-1 on the mound in a win against Delaware. He tied Ronald Hill’s record for most wins in a single season, which was set in 2004. Foster delivered seven strong innings, allowing two runs, one earned, on five hits.

Foster has been the go-to starter after taking over as ace of the staff following a huge performance late last season at the NCAA LSU Regional.

The Seahawks’ right-hander ranked second in the CAA in ERA (2.41) and innings pitched (97.0) and tied for the CAA lead with two complete games. He held opponents to a .225 batting average. Foster, who is one victory shy of the conference record of 13 wins, is the second UNCW hurler to receive CAA Pitcher of the Year honors, joining Mat Batts (2013 and 2014).

“The one thing Ryan [Foster] has done through the years is continued to control his command,” said Scalf. “He’s been able to throw four pitches and hasn’t had to show all four until the second or third time through the lineup, which has made him successful.”

With stability and experience throughout the staff, the Seahawks are confident in the top of their rotation moving into postseason play, with freshman Alex Royalty earning a spot as the team’s number two starting pitcher. At 7-2 on the hill, Royalty has been a huge contributor as a top of the rotation guy, but the first-year hurler is looking to bounce back after combining to throw seven total innings during his previous two starts. UNCW skipped Royalty’s final scheduled start in their CAA regular season finale last week in hopes of getting the young righty back on track and primed for the conference tournament.

“Virtually every team in the country as you get into late April, early May you see some of your freshman starting to fade a little,” Scalf added. “You’re playing more games, spending more time in the weight room, more practice days. Alex has done a tremendous job for us and we felt like giving him that extra week would give us the best opportunity to get him fresher going forward.”

Kennard McDowell.
Kennard McDowell.

After Royalty in the rotation, Cory Gantz is penciled in to go in game three of the tournament as he and Justin Crump have combined to make 16 starts, fashioning a 6-2 record in those games.

Austin Magestro, Taylor Hyssong, Austin Easter, Whitman Barnes and Jared Gesell have been reliable out of the bullpen. Their balance and ability to play matchups against hitters late in games has given the Seahawks the necessary depth to make a postseason run.

With 39.1 innings pitched, Magestro has been the most used reliever. Gessell has a team-high five saves, while Hyssong has emerged as a key asset to go along with Easter and Barnes through the sixth, seventh and eighth.

UNCW offense puts up huge numbers this season

Offensively, the Seahawks have been able to put up crooked numbers on the scoreboard in a variety of ways. UNCW is batting .324 as a team, ranked fourth in the nation with 449 runs scored. The Seahawks lead the CAA in nearly every offensive category and are listed third in the country with 78 home runs.

“It’s been a fun year to watch our hitters make progress,” said Scalf. “We felt good coming into the year and then 8 to 10 games in, the way each player was contributing up and down the lineup, we felt like this club had the ability to score runs.”

Steven Linkous.
Steven Linkous.

It starts atop the order with senior Steven Linkous, who has a league leading .393 batting average, with 70 runs scored, 84 hits and a .467 on-base percentage.

“The whole team does a great job of putting in the work,” said Linkous. “Our coaches get guys that want to work. I wouldn’t have wanted to play college baseball anywhere else and hopefully we have a few more weeks to look forward to.”

Just two years ago, the North Brunswick High School alum was battling for a spot in the starting lineup, but since gaining the confidence to go along with his talent at the plate, on the bases and in left field, Linkous has become one of the most feared lead-off men in all of college baseball.

“With me it’s really been about confidence,” Linkous added. “I got the chance to play for the Wilmington Sharks going into my junior year and really started to realize that I could compete with top level college players. One of my biggest goals throughout the year has been to set the tone. Having great guys hitting behind me takes a lot of the pressure of me and it’s very relaxing to just do my job.”

Brian Mims has followed the table setter as a quality two-hitter, while Gavin Stupienski, Casey Golden and Robbie Thorburn have provided a steady presence at the plate all season. CAA Player of the Year Nick Feight has been the biggest run producer, with a team-high 19 home runs and 85 RBIs. He leads all of Division I baseball in runs batted in and is tied fourth in round trippers.

“Things really started to click for me in the fall,” said Feight. “Coach [Randy] Hood is always preaching about having quality at-bats and I think that has sunk in with not only me, but the entire lineup. We never want to give an AB away. We just want to hit the ball hard somewhere.”

Feight batted .362, tied for the league lead with 22 doubles.  He is a semifinalist for the NCBWA Dick Howser Trophy, which goes to the top player in the nation. Feight is the fifth Seahawk to receive the Bill Brooks Player of the Year award, and first since 2008.

The CAA Baseball Championship gets underway on Wednesday. Photo courtesy- CAA Sports
The CAA Baseball Championship gets underway on Wednesday. Photo courtesy- CAA Sports

While the top and middle of the order has produced for much of the spring, it’s been consistency from the one through nine hitters, including the bottom third of the lineup, which has made it difficult on opposing pitchers without a real weak spot in the order.

“We just need to stay with our approach,” Feight said. “We try not to do too much and let the big moments come to us. It’s about getting guys on base and passing it down to the next guy. We’ve got a great team and a great group of players.”

 

2016 CAA Baseball Championship
The Ballpark at Patriots Point – Mt. Pleasant, S.C.

Wednesday, May 25
Game 1 – #4 James Madison vs. #5 Northeastern – Noon
Game 2 – #3 Elon vs. #6 College of Charleston – 3:30 p.m.
Game 3 – Loser of Game 1 vs. Loser of Game 2 – 7 p.m.

Thursday, May 26
Game 4 – #1 UNCW vs. Winner of Game 1 – Noon
Game 5 – #2 William & Mary vs. Winner of Game 2 – 3:30 p.m.
Game 6 – Winner of Game 3 vs. Lowest-Seeded Game 4/Game 5 Loser – 7 p.m.

Friday, May 27
Game 7 – Winner of Game 4 vs. Winner of Game 5 – Noon
Game 8 – Winner of Game 6 vs. Highest-Seeded Game 4/Game Loser  – 3:30 p.m.
Game 9 – Loser of Game 7 vs. Winner of Game 8 – 7 p.m.

Saturday, May 28
Game 10 – Winner of Game 7 vs. Winner of Game 9 – 1 p.m.
Game 11 (if necessary) – Same two teams – 30 minutes after Game 1

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