Hot bats power Hornets to best start since 2011

Shenandoah University’s baseball team has vaulted into the Top 10 in a pair of Division III national polls since the start of the 2017 season, a rise powered by an offense that ranks as one of the best in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference through the season’s first month.

The Hornets (12-1), listed third in the latest D3baseball.com/NCBWA top 25 and sixth in the ABCA poll, entered Wednesday as the ODAC leaders in runs scored per game (8.8), home runs (nine), slugging percentage (.472) and on-base percentage (.434), numbers that have helped an inexperienced SU pitching staff as it finds its footing on the mound. SU also ranked second in the league in batting average (.333), just two points behind Roanoke.

The result has been a 12-game winning streak to open the season – Shenandoah’s best start since winning 19 straight to open the 2011 campaign – that was snapped with a 13-4 loss to Lynchburg in the second game of a doubleheader Sunday in the Hornets’ conference opener.

“We don’t talk about batting averages. We take that pressure off of our guys,” Hornets head coach Kevin Anderson said Tuesday of Shenandoah’s success at the plate. “We just talk about quality at-bats. We try to get guys to, one, figure out what their strength is and, two, hit to their strength. It’s easy to talk about what a guy can’t do. We just try to get guys to be comfortable at the plate, balanced and hit to their strength. We don’t use the cookie-cutter approach where everybody has to hit the same. We don’t believe in that. (Assistant coach Bruce) Cameron does a great job of identifying what a guy can do.”

Among qualified hitters (minimum of 2.5 plate appearances per game and played in 75 percent of team games) Shenandoah has six players – shortstop Nick Goode (.419), designated hitter Jake Loew (.400), center fielder Michael Cruz (.371), second baseman Tristan Baker (.360), right fielder Abel Arocho (.358) and first baseman Luke Nussman (.333) – with a batting average of .333 or better, the best in the ODAC. No other team in the conference has more than four.

Shenandoah has two players in the top four in the ODAC in slugging percentage – Loew (.822), the league leader, and Nussman (.625) – and six Hornets are slugging .500 or better. SU leads the conference in home runs despite being tied for the fewest games played (13). Roanoke, for comparison, has played 19 games.

Loew, a preseason All-American, leads the conference with five home runs, while junior outfielder Dylan Stouffer has two homers and Nussman and senior catcher Dan Cameron have one each.

Shenandoah, which hit 21 homers in 47 games in 2016, is on pace to hit 29 in its 42 regular season games this season.

Anderson said the Hornets’ coaching staff has tried to keep at least five power hitters – those with home run capability or the ability to drive the ball into the gaps for extra bases – in the lineup each game, and Loew said the team’s success in the batter’s box has become contagious.

“Right now we’re just really focused and … we’re all focused on getting it done for the guy next to you, not for yourself,” Loew said. “It doesn’t matter what inning it is or who’s coming up to bat, if we’re down a couple runs I know that even our seven through nine guys are gonna hit the ball hard and run as fast as they can and get on base. When you have that confidence in your teammates it’s a lot of fun, and they know we have the confidence in them, so there’s no doubt between who can do it and who can’t. We all know that every guy in the lineup can get it done.”

Shenandoah also ranks fourth in the ODAC in walks (66) and is the only team in the conference with more free passes than strikeouts.

“I think we have a number of guys that can hurt you and … and that’s a credit to our players, our hitters, that pitchers know they have to be careful because we have four or five guys that can put the ball out of the ballpark,” Anderson said.

SU’s early-season schedule has certainly helped with its offensive production. The Hornets have played 12 of their first 13 games at home at Bridgeforth Field, where the wind regularly blows from left to right field to offer an enticing power boost to left-handed hitters. Eight of the Hornets’ nine home runs this season have been hit by lefties.

“When the wind’s blowing 10 to 15 miles an hour that can add an extra 20 to 30 feet on a baseball,” Anderson said, “and that’s a big difference when you’re playing in a ballpark that’s small like ours.”

Shenandoah will enjoy that home field advantage for four more games – the Hornets host Mount Aloysius on Friday, Neumann in a doubleheader on Saturday and Penn State-Altoona on Sunday – before hitting the road for nine of their next 11 games. Nine games during that stretch will be against ODAC competition, including a doubleheader at Roanoke (14-5, 0-2 ODAC) – ranked 22nd by D3baseball.com/NCBWA – on March 25.

“This is the best it’s ever been from top to bottom,” Anderson said of the ODAC, which has three teams in the “http://D3baseball.com/NCBWA” target=”_blank”>D3baseball.com Top 25. “It’s gonna be a dogfight for the six spots in the conference tournament. You’ve gotta be on you’re A game in every game, and it’s a short 20-game season and every game counts twice in your record – once in your overall and once in your ODAC record.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com