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.”
Dwyer’s recent efforts suggest a potentially climactic ending to the Chandler, Ariz. native’s breakout season. In 12 starts, including four complete games, the 6-foot-3 southpaw is 6-5 with a 2.88 ERA. He’s thrown an Atlantic 10-high 90 2/3 innings and has struck out a VCU-best 72.
While Dwyer has been VCU’s best starting pitcher for much of the season, he’s elevated himself to an all-league level in recent weeks, performances he says are the result of improved command.
“The key to starting pitching is being able to have three pitches you can locate in the zone,” Dwyer says. “And that’s a fight for me. That’s my fight, is to able to throw my fastball, curveball and changeup in the zone, and when I can we see what happens, like Saint Louis, I can just, groove.”
Dwyer has come a long way in a short time to become the protagonist of VCU’s rotation. Two years ago, he didn’t have a Division I scholarship offer. He was planning on heading to junior college until former Ram Jamie Brewington, who pitched briefly in the majors, provided late VCU Coach Paul Keyes with a tip on Dwyer. Brewington had seen Dwyer’s effortless motion, his mid-80s fastball, solid changeup and sweeping, 12-to-6 curveball and told Keyes the Corona Del Sol High School senior deserved a look. Keyes was already traveling to Arizona to recruit current Ram Jordan Weymouth, so on Brewington’s advice, he scouted Dwyer as well. He obviously liked what he saw.
“I’m happy I got the opportunity,” Dwyer said. “I guess all I needed was one [offer].”
During his official visit, Stiffler says it was obvious Dwyer would stand out from his peers. Growing up, Dwyer fell in love with acting and was involved in several stage productions. In high school, he portrayed Hamlet in a spoof of the Shakespearean tragedy. Dwyer also plays the guitar and enjoys strumming Rush hits like “Tom Sawyer”, an appropriately individualistic jam.
“If you knew Heath, you would know he’s a guy, him moving to the East Coast as an 18-year-old kid, he would not be scared of that,” he said. “He would say, ‘bring on that challenge.’ On his visit, he wanted to go downtown, look at the architecture…he wanted to go see Shockoe Slip. It was different to him. He likes those challenges. He’s not afraid of stuff like that, and that’s kind of how he pitches.”
Dwyer’s freshman year was marked by many of the pitfalls freshmen face: consistency, level of competition and an increase in demands. But amid the ups and downs, Dwyer turned in some notable moments, including two solid outings against ranked East Carolina. Dwyer finished the season 3-4 with a 4.55 ERA, but it was clear the Rams had something in their freshman hurler.
Dwyer rested his arm most of the summer, but dedicated himself to the weight room and added strength to his 200-pound frame, which has paid dividends this season. Since returning to campus, he says he’s stuck to a strict throwing routine.
“He didn’t have a goal necessarily to lead us in wins,” Stiffler said. “He had a goal to lead us in innings, which for me is, I almost enjoy that more than guys telling me they want to win 7-8 games because you want to win 7-8 games, you’ve got to pitch deep into games.”
Not only is Dwyer pitching deep into games – he’s gone at least six innings in each of his 12 starts and seven in all but two – but he’s getting stronger in the later innings. In the first three innings of games this season, Dwyer’s ERA is 4.75. From the fourth inning on, it’s 1.65.
But success, Dwyer says, isn’t just about being able to physically perform. It’s his ability to believe in those physical attributes that has allowed him to become one of the A-10’s best arms.
“I can trust that I’ve put in the work to throw a full count breaking ball for a strike, he said. “I have put in the effort off the mound to be able to trust my success on the mound, and then again, I can’t speak enough for my defense because I don’t have to try and throw my most amazing pitch every single pitch.”
Down the stretch, the Rams will need to lean on their ace. Dwyer will get two final regular-season starts as the Rams look to erase a three-game deficit that stands between them and the A-10 Tournament. The pressure will be on, and many eyes will look to Dwyer to deliver. But the VCU sophomore says he’s ready. Actors like a big stage.
“The aspect of, this could be the game that loses our season for us. That’s never going to go away, but that’s the excitement of it,” Dwyer said. “What would be the fun of playing if we were never pushed or never put under pressure? Adrenaline’s my biggest tool.”