Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Pitcher Munson putting out fires at JMU

RICHMOND -- Ice water dripping down his face, James Madison University baseball coach Spanky McFarland made an announcement Saturday evening that, if true, would have given a lot of teams in the Colonial Athletic Association hope.

"Munson won't be going to the tournament," McFarland said.

He's kidding, of course. It wouldn't be a CAA tournament without Kevin Munson, his hard-throwing, do-it-all pitcher from Roanoke.

The coach's comment was mock punishment for Munson's final strike of the day -- a sneak-attack water-cooler dump on McFarland's head after the Dukes defeated host Virginia Commonwealth 7-2 to win the regular season conference championship.

As usual, Munson had plenty to do with the result. A day after recording a two-out save to keep JMU's title hopes alive, the Cave Spring graduate closed this one with four scoreless innings of relief, allowing just two singles.

"He should get [CAA] pitcher of the year," McFarland said. "If he doesn't, it's a joke in my mind. I don't think anybody's more valuable to their team than he is."

Indeed, Munson entered the game with a 7-1 record, a 1.33 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 4713 innings. Saturday's save was his league-high 10th of the season, moving him one ahead of another Timesland product -- VCU closer and Alleghany High School graduate Robbie Andrews.

"He was lights out," said Andrews, who played summer ball with Munson on the Covington Lumberjacks of the Valley League two years ago. "He's been lights out all year, so we knew that coming into this game if they got any lead they were going to go to him."

Andrews, who attended 2 p.m. graduation ceremonies before Saturday's 4 o'clock game, allowed three insurance runs in the ninth inning. It was an uncharacteristically rough outing for the right-hander, who entered the game with 2.64 ERA.

"Robbie's been outstanding this year and has really had a good career for us," said VCU coach Paul Keyes, whose team would have won at least a share of the conference title with a victory Saturday. "Sort of like Munson, he's gotten better every year. He just didn't have his best stuff today, but that happens."

Overall, this has been a productive season for Timesland pitchers in the CAA. Lord Botetourt product Turner Phelps shook off a rough start to the season to finish 3-1 in conference for the Dukes. He'll likely start JMU's first game of the CAA tournament Thursday against host UNC Wilmington.

Still, nobody's had a year like Munson, a junior with a fastball that reaches the mid-90s.

"I got a good opportunity here and took advantage of it," said Munson, a former catcher who didn't pitch full time until his senior year at Cave Spring. "The coaches have helped me out a lot. I've been blessed."

McFarland has used Munson like an old-fashioned fireman this season, bringing him into games whenever the situation is most volatile. As a result, Munson has been in position to earn numerous decisions despite not starting a game.

With threatening skies overhead Saturday, Munson entered to start the sixth inning with his team up 4-2. He struck out three and didn't allow a walk in what matched his second-longest outing of the year.

"I think when Munson came in the game we sort of lost our edge a little bit," Keyes said.

"Munson's been doing that to everybody in the league. It's a huge advantage. Especially with a four-team tournament, they can go to him and he might have three one-inning stints and be MVP of the tournament."

Munson pumped his fist on the mound after coaxing a fly-ball out to end the game. The celebration was modest, though. The Dukes know that a CAA tournament title is their only gateway to an NCAA berth this year.

"We haven't achieved all of our goals of the season, but one of our goals was win to win the regular season and we've done that," Munson said. "A lot more of our goals are in the playoffs."

And Munson will, in fact, be there.

Unfortunately for the rest of the league.

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