HITTING MACHIN FIRING ON ALL CYLINDERS

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Despite a season-ending ankle injury in 2013, shortstop Vimael Machin is hitting .325 with a league-leading 42 RBIs.

Despite a season-ending ankle injury in 2013, shortstop Vimael Machin is hitting .325 with a league-leading 42 RBIs.

RICHMOND, Va. – Considering the VCU Baseball team is hitting better than .300 combined, it’s not hard to go through the lineup and pick out a guy swinging a hot bat.

VCU entered the weekend eighth nationally in average (.311) and 10th in runs scored per game (7.2). At the heart of that lineup of heavy-hitters, both literally and figuratively, is junior shortstop Vimael Machin. On a team full of pleasant surprises, Machin has been perhaps the biggest. Through 38 games, the 5-foot-11 native of San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico is hitting .325 and is tied for the Atlantic 10 lead – with teammate Bill Cullen – with 42 RBIs.

Machin’s always been a good hitter for the Rams. He entered the year with a .282 average and has been a starter since his freshman year. But he’s ascended to another level this season. He’s on pace to set career highs in practically every offensive statistical category.

It would have been difficult to anticipate this type of success from Machin this season. On May 5 last year, in a game at The Diamond against Saint Louis, Machin was attempting to leg out a base hit when he rolled his left ankle at first base. The injury looked gruesome at first glance. Machin’s ankle was bleeding, and some, including the VCU shortstop, feared a compound fracture.

“It was pretty scary. When it happened, I thought I was done in baseball, to be honest,” Machin recalls of the moments immediately following the injury, as he lay on the infield dirt.

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MEET THE DIVE TEAM

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VCU Baseball continues to roll. The Rams took two of three from Saint Joseph’s this weekend, with transfer JoJo Howie spinning a 5-hit gem in the rubber match Sunday. Afterwards, there was an interview and your standard highlight reel. But you can’t expect a baseball interview to proceed as you would many other sports. Baseball players tend to be a little….creative.

The Rams have been using a number of nicknames this year, including the Dive Team,which I thought was just sort of a thing for the outfielders, but now maybe it applies elsewhere. Who knows? Anyway, watch the highlights and interview below, but keep an eye out for the 2:01 mark.

THE BATTLE FOR RICHMOND

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VCU Baseball hosts Richmond at The Diamond for a three-game set to close the regular season. The series starts Thursday at 6 p.m., followed by an 11 a.m. contest on Friday and a  10:30 a.m. tilt on Saturday. The Rams (25-26) still have a mathematical shot at playing in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, so there’s more than just city bragging rights at stake.

DWYER LANDS STARRING ROLE AS VCU ACE

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Sophomore Heath Dwyer is 6-5 with a 2.88 ERA for VCU this season.

Sophomore Heath Dwyer is 6-5 with a 2.88 ERA for VCU this season.

RICHMOND, Va. – The son of two part-time actors, VCU sophomore Heath Dwyer appears to have inherited a flair for the dramatic.

Dwyer, who nearly majored in theater at VCU, has played the part of a hero of late, delivering a handful of potentially season-saving performances. In his last three starts, the left-handed pitcher has thrown three complete games and is 2-1 with a 1.73 ERA.

He should’ve taken a bow after his last effort. On May 4 against first-place Saint Louis, Dwyer outdueled Alex Alemann, one of the Atlantic 10’s top pitchers, spinning a five-hit, 10-strikeout, complete-game shutout. The win helped the Rams take two of three from the Billikens and kept VCU’s A-10 Tournament hopes alive. Gutty and important as Dwyer’s gem was to VCU, especially for a sophomore, it did not catch Rams’ Coach Shawn Stiffler by surprise.

“I’ve never looked up and thought, this occasion is too big for him,” Stiffler said. “[He has] a maturity level of, you can drop him in New York with a quarter, and he can get home.”

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RAMS FIGHTING FOR A-10 BID IN SEASON’S FINAL TWO WEEKS

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Junior Joey Cujas leads VCU with a .326 average and 32 RBIs this season.

Junior Joey Cujas leads VCU with a .326 average and 32 RBIs this season.

RICHMOND, Va. – There’s no mystery about what the next two weeks mean to the VCU Baseball team. The Rams’ season boils down to six final Atlantic 10 Conference games, of which VCU will have to win the majority of to keep its season alive.

Seven teams will qualify for the A-10 Tournament May 22-25 in Charlotte. VCU (23-23, 8-10 A-10) is currently 10th, three games out of a conference tournament berth.

“Obviously, we understand completely what we’ve got to do,” said VCU Coach Shawn Stiffler. “The funny thing is that it’s not that far off of what we did last year. The only difference is…there’s a lot more teams in the league.”

In 2012, VCU started 7-12 in CAA play, but finished by winning seven of its final 10 conference games to capture that league’s No. 5 seed. The Rams eventually advanced within a game of the CAA Championship round.

If the Rams want to repeat that performance, now is the time to do it. The good news for VCU is that it will face two teams directly above the Rams in the A-10 standings. The Rams will travel to George Washington for three games May 10-12. The Colonials are 10-8 in the league and in eighth place. VCU will conclude the regular season at The Diamond May 16-18 with three games against rival Richmond. The Spiders are 11-7 in the A-10 and are tied with Saint Joseph’s and Xavier for one of the three final conference tournament slots.

The Rams know their backs are against the wall, but they’re not getting ahead of themselves. They can’t win six games at once.

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A CHANGE-UP FOR CUTLER-VOLTZ

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From 2009-2012, Seth Cutler-Voltz was a rock for VCU’s pitching staff, throwing 338 1/3 innings in 73 appearances. He threw at least 84 innings in each of his final three years, including 2010, when he finished 8-4 with a 3.47 ERA in 119 1/3 innings. But this year, Cutler-Voltz is seeing baseball from a different perspective. In this piece, Scott Wyant tells us about Cutler-Voltz’s transition to coaching.

FARRAR PLAYS THE LONG GAME

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VCU senior pitcher Ryan Farrar is 4-4 this season with a 3.73 ERA in 10 starts.

VCU senior pitcher Ryan Farrar is 4-4 this season with a 3.73 ERA in 10 starts.

RICHMOND, Va. – Ryan Farrar needed some time to think. His professional baseball dream was dangling in front of him like a carrot on a string, and he had a potentially life-changing decision to make. He walked out of his parents’ kitchen and onto the front porch and buried his head in his hands.

The Pittsburgh Pirates had called in 11th round of last year’s amateur draft and made the VCU left-handed pitcher an offer. It wasn’t run-out-and-get-a-Rolls money. It wasn’t even what Farrar had mentally set as his minimum requirement, but it was a chance to play baseball for a living. On the other hand, Farrar still had one year of eligibility remaining, another year of college, another year to polish his skills.

A lot of players would spring out of their cleats for a shot at pro ball. But Farrar was waging an inner war.

“It was awful,” he says. “I just sat on my front porch by myself. I didn’t want to be around anyone, and I was pulling my hair out of my head and thinking, ‘How can I turn down this kind of money to go play baseball?’”

Farrar looked his boyhood dream in the eyes and said, “No thanks.”

He told the Pirates it was about the money, but Farrar says that was a convenient excuse, his “out pitch”, if you will.

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LET’S STRIKEOUT CANCER

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Tuesday at War Memorial Stadium in Hampton, VCU and Old Dominion will wage a battle against cancer. The Rams and Monarchs will play at 7 p.m. in the first Key Dog Strikeout Cancer Classic, named for late VCU Baseball Coach Paul Keyes, who passed away in November after a battle with cancer. Proceeds will be donated to Keyes’ family.

Afterwards, both teams will be shaving their heads at home plate to raise cancer awareness.

RAMS’ CULLEN A GIANT IN HIS FIELD

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Junior Bill Cullen is hitting a team-best .406 with two home runs this season.

Junior Bill Cullen is hitting a team-best .406 with two home runs this season.

There’s nothing small about Bill Cullen’s game, that is, other than Cullen himself. Listed at 5-foot-9, the VCU center fielder manages to pack quite a punch into his 180-pound frame.

A left-handed batter, Cullen summons uncommon power through strong hands and hummingbird bat speed. Cullen generates so much energy at the plate, he’s been known to send his own dugout running for cover. Coach Shawn Stiffler says he’s been tempted to use the trash can lid as a shield against Cullen’s foul balls.

“He has probably the best bat speed of anyone I’ve ever coached,” Stiffler says.

The good news for those ducking in the third base dugout is that Cullen spends the majority of his time thumping baseballs into the ample fairways provided between the lines at The Diamond, VCU’s spacious home field.

That’s when the fun really begins.

The Diamond, cavernous by college baseball standards, allows Cullen to showcase arguably his most dynamic skill: his speed. In 59 games last season, Cullen hit .347 with 25 doubles, five home runs and tied for the national lead with nine triples. The Diamond may cost Cullen a few home runs, but its alleys are as wide as airport runways, ideal for a gap hitter with good wheels. In other words, the place was practically built for guys like Cullen.

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CLOSING TIME; HAUSER THRIVING IN LATE GAME ROLE

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Blake Hauser, in his first year as VCU’s closer, is 4-1 with 10 saves and a 2.22 ERA.

A curious text message appeared on the phone of VCU Interim Baseball Coach Shawn Stiffler’s recently. It was from a recruit who had one simple burning question: “Can you turn me into Blake Hauser?”

After two underwhelming seasons in VCU uniform, Hauser is thriving this year after converting from starter to closer for the Rams, catching the attention of fans, scouts and recruits alike.

In 26 appearances, the Chesterfield, Va. native has a 4-1 record, 10 saves and a 2.22 ERA. In 28.1 innings, the hard-throwing righty has struck out 54 – an average of more than 17 per nine innings – and allowed just nine hits. If not for 24 walks, his ERA might be microscopic.

But Hauser didn’t get to this point in his career easily. Drafted in the 25th round in 2009 by the Cleveland Indians out of Manchester High School, Hauser instead chose to play for VCU Coach Paul Keyes and the Rams. Armed with an exploding, 95 mile-and-hour fastball, his arrival was met with much fanfare.

It didn’t work out like it was supposed to.

Hauser struggled with his command and posted a 4-4 record with a gaudy 7.07 ERA in 11 games, including 10 starts, as a freshman. As a sophomore he posted a 3-4 record with a 4.65 ERA in 12 appearances, nine of them starts. It was progress, but not the type of performance he or others had envisioned. Frustration set in.

“Not really towards anybody or anything, but at myself,” Hauser said. “I didn’t really contribute as much as I should have. Not even close. And I felt like I could’ve helped the team out and I really didn’t do much, and it was really frustrating.”

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