NORFOLK — Chris Finwood views Old Dominion’s baseball season as confirming his suspicions rather than proving anyone wrong.
The Monarchs were picked to finish 10th in their first season in Conference USA, but presently sit fourth with their league schedule complete, heading into a nonconference, three-game home series versus Long Island on Friday and Saturday at the Bud Metheny Complex.
ODU clinched a spot in next week’s conference tournament and possesses a gaudy Ratings Percentage Index number that should have the Monarchs in the NCAA tournament discussion.
“If you’re picked 10th and finish fourth,” Finwood said, “I think that means you overachieved in everybody’s eyes. We thought we had a pretty good club, but going into a new league, you never know how you stack up.”
Pretty well. ODU (31-21, 17-13 C-USA) won six of 10 league series and won at least one game against every conference opponent, including the top two teams: nationally ranked Rice and Alabama Birmingham.
The Monarchs defeated No. 1-ranked Virginia, the highlight of a nonconference schedule that included games against Liberty, Kentucky, Georgia Tech and VCU. ODU’s strength of schedule was rated fourth in the nation by the NCAA earlier this week and figures to conclude in the top 10.
“I tell our guys every day,” Finwood said, “and I probably have said this ad nauseum: When we play good, we win, against anybody. When we don’t play good, we get beat. Plain and simple. That’s where we’re at. We can’t go out there and not play well and win. But when we do play well, we’re talented enough that we can beat anybody.”
ODU’s formula is quality fielding, timely hitting and decent pitching, led by an experienced, workhorse bullpen. The Monarchs are 14th nationally in fielding percentage (.977). They lead Conference USA in runs, hits, runs batted in, doubles and total bases. They’re third in team batting (.286), second in on-base percentage (.369) and fourth in slugging percentage (.382).
“We’ve done everything that we need to do,” junior outfielder Josh Eldridge said. “We haven’t done anything great, but we haven’t been bad at anything, either. We’re fielding the ball well … and we get big hits when we need them. Look at our stats and there’s nothing eye-popping, nobody with a lot of home runs or anything like that, but we just do what we need to do and we do a good job of coming together as a team.”
ODU hasn’t lost more than two consecutive games all season.
“In college baseball, that’s pretty phenomenal,” Finwood said. “I’ve had great teams that had three- or four-game losing streaks. Guys get hurt or things don’t go your way. It shows we’ve been pretty consistent.”
ODU’s offense began to click when Finwood inserted Nick Walker into the leadoff slot midway through the season. The freshman from Virginia Beach is ODU’s leading hitter (.329), has scored a team-high 40 runs and has an on-base percentage over .400.
Eldridge surged in the past six weeks to raise his average to .303. Since April 2, he’s hitting .364, and in his last 10 games, he’s a torrid .473 (18-for-38).
“It just took me a while this year to really get it going,” Eldridge said. “I knew at some point I was going to get it going. It’s just keeping that comfort and realizing it’s just one at-bat. If I make an out, it’s not the end of the world, or if I swing at a bad pitch, it’s not the end of the world. I can’t overthink something. I just have to go one at-bat at a time, and taking that approach has really helped me out, mentally and statistically so far.”
The Monarchs are eighth in C-USA in team earned-run average (3.54), and Finwood said that the starting pitching has been average at best. But the bullpen has performed exceptionally. Middle reliever Conner Overton has a team-best 2.62 ERA in 24 appearances. Senior Dean Ali from Chesapeake is often the setup man for senior closer Brad Gero, who has 10 saves in his 31 appearances.
Overall pitching depth allowed ODU’s coaching staff to move Ali from starter to the bullpen, where he is more effective, throwing fewer innings more frequently.
“Coach told me all the time, it’s not a demotion,” said Ali, whose 53 strikeouts in 46 1/3 innings are second only to starter Ryan Yarbrough. “He knows I want the best for the team, and it would put me in position to pitch a couple times a week instead of just once.”
Finwood combs the rankings and various RPI numbers, particularly with the Monarchs on the bubble for talk about the 64-team NCAA tournament. ODU was 30th on Warren Nolan’s site, No. 28 on the NCAA site before Tuesday’s loss at VMI.
He explains some of the numbers and possibilities and history to his players periodically, but doesn’t want them to dwell on it. They know the stakes, but are more jazzed about the opportunity to play for a conference title, particularly since they were prohibited from doing so last spring on their way out the Colonial Athletic Association door.
“It’s hard to keep it off in the distance, knowing that we have such a tough schedule and we’re still doing so well,” Eldridge said of NCAA talk. “The bottom line is we can come to the ballpark and beat anybody any day if we play our game. That’s the biggest thing. RPI, none of that matters. If we come out and play the way we know how, we can beat anybody. If we don’t, we can lose to anybody. We just try to play our brand of baseball and let everything else take care of itself.”
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