Byline: ALEX ABRAMS, The Times-Union
Jacksonville University pitching coach Les Wright knows exactly what kind of staff he's got.
"They're a little cocky, there is no doubt about it," Wright said, cracking a smile. ". . . They don't think people can hit [off] them, and I like that as a pitching coach."
Though confident a year ago, the Dolphins got off to a slow start, losing 14 of their first 21 games as result of -- among other things -- inconsistent pitching.
But it improved as the season progressed, and 25 wins over a 39-game stretch earned JU its third trip to the NCAA Regionals in five seasons. The Dolphins were eliminated in Tallahassee after opening losses to Florida State and Rutgers. Still, the confidence gained during the turnaround remains for today's 1 p.m. season opener at Bethune-Cookman College.
"We know what we can do; we know we can get it done," said right-hander Dennis Robinson, who went 6-7 with 4.74 ERA in his first season with the Dolphins. ". . . We know that we can go out there and beat the top teams. We've just got to beat the teams that we're supposed to beat every day."
Along with Robinson, the Dolphins return five of their winningest pitchers. They combined for 24 wins last season and form a rotation that Wright believes could be the best in his five-year tenure as a JU assistant coach.
Robinson is a fastball thrower. Brett Nagy prefers the curveball. Donald Brickle gets the job done in "a sloppy way," while James Murdock is the team's "stopper," Wright said. And Josh Deel is tough to hit when healthy. Together, they may be asked to make up for a less than reliable defense and uncertain offensive power.
"I'm actually not concerned with our pitching staff," JU coach Terry Alexander said. "I feel like that's going to be one of our strengths -- if not the strength -- of our ballclub."
JU lost just two members of the starting rotation from last season's staff that went 32-30 and helped capture the team's first Atlantic Sun Conference title since 1999. Pitching coach Bob Shepherd also left to join the University of North Florida coaching staff.
Wright was promoted to Shepherd's old job, and several newcomers must fill the holes in the rotation. But the biggest addition to the pitching staff --literally -- is a 6-foot-3, 220-pound former outfielder.
Junior Chris Kelly, who batted .278 with three home runs and 26 RBI last season, emerged as the team's likely closer out of the bullpen after Alexander gave him a try on the mound in the offseason. Kelly has shown signs that he can throw with the same power that he provided at the plate late last season.
"Kelly has been a real pleasant surprise. We weren't even counting on him at all as being a pitcher," Wright said. "Me and coach [Alexander] talked about it, and he wasn't sure about it. I told him, 'Give him a chance,' and [Kelly] has turned out to be solid."
But what may not be as steady is the team's ability to play defense. …