RICHMOND, Va. – It doesn’t take long for Matt Lees to go from bullpen observer to shutdown reliever. The senior lefty says it requires a little more than a dozen warm-up tosses before he’s game-ready.
The routine, which he’s compressed over the years, has served him well. No one has made more appearances out of the VCU bullpen the last four years than Lees.
“I love it,” says the ever-ready lefty. “It definitely brings a lot of confidence to the team when they see I can run out there on one days rest or no days rest. It gives them a real boost.”
This year, once warm, Lees has been red hot.
In 12 appearances this season, covering 18 1/3 innings, Lees is 4-0 and has not surrendered a run. It’s been a boost for VCU (13-10), which found itself short on arms at times last year, but has watched Lees help anchor a staff that ranks second in the A-10 in ERA (2.95).
Lees, who ranks fourth in school history with 19 saves, has enjoyed plenty of success as a Ram, but this recent streak has been especially gratifying for the Richmond native, whose senior season was once in doubt. Just a few months ago, Lees and the VCU coaching staff weren’t sure what he’d deliver this season.
He wasn’t highly recruited out of Richmond’s Godwin High School, but Lees made a name for himself at VCU as a guy who threw strikes and threw often. What Lees didn’t have in velocity, he made up for in movement, consistency and availability. He led the Rams in appearances in both 2012 and 2013, and ranked second last season. He needs two more appearances to become just the third pitcher in program history with 100.
As a sophomore, Lees was spectacular, recording 11 saves and a 1.22 ERA in 30 games.
Last season, he wasn’t the same. Lees relied on accuracy and ball movement to keep hitters off-balance, but his elbow ached and his pitches flattened out. He allowed 49 hits in 38 innings and his ERA climbed to 5.45. Opposing batters hit .318 against him.
“With any sport you’re going to have those nagging issues,” Lees said. “Last year, I knew something was different and something didn’t feel right.”
“I think he threw the baseball well last year, but don’t think he ever felt real comfortable,” VCU Coach Shawn Stiffler said. “It’s not that his stuff wasn’t good at times, it’s just that he didn’t have that finish through the [strike] zone that I’ve seen him have in past years. In the past, the ball would explode through the last half on the way to the batter.”
The source of Lees’ discomfort was an avulsion fracture, a condition in which a ligament pulls a segment of bone away from the main mass of bone. Surgery isn’t always necessary with an avulsion tear, but it is a possibility.
Stiffler and Lees settled on a rehabilitation plan. He says if Lees didn’t show progress by October, the plan was to shut him down and opt for surgery. In addition to rehab, Lees worked with the VCU staff to change his arm slot in order to reduce the strain on his elbow. He’d previously thrown mostly from an over-the-top or three-quarters position. Eventually, Lees found comfort in a nearly sidearm release that he’d used occasionally in high school.
It was a dramatic shift for a pitcher at this stage of his career. Pitching is a science of precision, and even the slightest bit of tinkering with a hurler’s mechanics can lead to problems locating the baseball. But Stiffler trusted Lees’ work ethic.
“Matt’s one of those guys that, he’s one of those people that when he has his mind set that he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it. We always know with Matt what the effort is going to be. It wasn’t going to be, ‘oh well, it didn’t work out today, now I’m scrapping it’. When he commits to something, he commits to it,” Stiffler said.
Lees says it only took a handful of bullpen throwing sessions before he became comfortable. The results appear to agree. Opposing batters are hitting just .147 – a career-best – off Lees this season. More importantly, Lees’ elbow has remained sound.
“It feels great,” Lees says. “It feels better than it has in a long time. The rehab definitely helped. The stress from the arm slot is helping me too. It’s a completely different motion. It’s more natural than going over the top.”
Stiffler says the VCU coaching staff will watch Lees and his workload closely, but so far, the results are encouraging. While he isn’t closing as much as in recent years, Lees does lead the staff in appearances and has been called on in a number of high-pressure situations for the Rams.
“If I hand him the ball in the ninth inning, I feel very comfortable doing that. Danny [Conception] has kind of taken over that role for us this year,” Stiffler said. “We’re using Matt more a stopper than as a true closer this year.”
Not that it concerns Lees, who says he’s pretty much ready any time, anywhere.
“Saves really don’t matter,” he says. “I like going up and competing. Whatever’s best for the team to help the team win is what I want to do.”