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.”
But he and Stiffler, who is also the Rams’ pitching coach, were making incremental progress with Hauser’s mechanics. Over time, they worked to shorten Hauser’s stride, which caused his arm to lag behind his lower half, as well as other minor adjustments.
“It took him a while for him to be able to repeat his mechanics, to repeat pitches and show command.” Stiffler said. “He’d have days where he’d be dynamic, and then he’d have days where it didn’t work for him and he didn’t throw enough strikes.”
However, last summer a number of factors converged to turn him into a dominant pitcher. First, the Cape Cod League’s Harwich Mariners wanted to use Hauser as a closer. Hauser had been a starter most of his life, but was receptive to the change. Second, he was able to sharpen his slider into his “out” pitch to compliment his fastball. He tinkered, asked others for advice and then tinkered some more. The result was a soul-busting breaking ball that he can throw 84-85 miles per hour on any count. So far, it’s been nearly unhittable.
“I would say no one in college has the slider he has,” said VCU catcher and first baseman Taylor Perkins. “I think that’s absolutely the best pitch I’ve seen because I’ve caught it, I’ve faced it. It’s just a nightmare to hit. The only way you can hit it is if he hangs it, and he doesn’t do that very often.”
Finally, Hauser’s commitment to pitching allowed him to reign in his inner Wild Thing.
“Coming in as a freshman, you have no idea the commitment you have to make to be a top-flight Division I player…especially a pitcher,” Perkins added. “I think he figured that out. I feel like he committed whole-heartedly to that process this last summer.”
Hauser thrived in the Cape, striking out 19 in 16 innings while saving three games. He posted a 2.60 ERA. Shortly after returning to VCU in the fall, Keyes, Hauser and Stiffler agreed to make the change permanent.
Instead of pacing himself for five, six or seven innings, Hauser could lean on his two best power pitches and attack hitters for just 1-2 innings.
“His job, we literally tell him, is to go out and strike out three guys,” Stiffler said.
The formula is working. Hauser’s success in the Cape Cod League has carried over into his junior season at VCU. Opposing hitters are batting a paltry .095 against him. In the meantime, he has started to embrace the closer mentality.
“It’s a different world,” Hauser said of his new role. “It’s the last three outs of the game. It doesn’t seem like it, but it’s the hardest three. You just have to be kind of aggressive with your stuff and it’s just adrenaline.
“I love it. I don’t see it as pressure. You’ve just got to show up.”
Aided by their stopper, the Rams (28-21, 13-14 CAA) have won six of seven and have vaulted into fifth place in the CAA. The top six schools earn bids to the CAA Tournament May 23-26 in Harrisonburg, Va.
He was already on scout’s radars, but Hauser’s emergence has likely sent his draft stock soaring. But the 6-foot-2 fireballer was quick to deflect any talk of pro ball.
“I think about it a little bit, but honestly, I was just looking forward to having a good season, win the CAA’s, go to NCAA Regionals and do the good things our team should do. I think about it a little bit, but it’s something I’ve got to put off.”
At this rate, not for long.