A year ago Sean Thompson was “the kid” on VCU’s staff, a freshman with a live arm who was trying to keep pace with a host of seniors. But that was last year. Today, he owns more Division I experience than any pitcher on VCU’s roster.
Thompson, who started and earned the victory in VCU’s historic regional championship game against Dallas Baptist last season, has taken his newfound veteran status in stride. In the meantime, the new guys, the players Thompson is being asked to lead, haven’t missed a beat.
Although there was no piece of equipment more valuable to the VCU pitching staff this fall than nametags, the Rams have the look of a team primed to defend their Atlantic 10 title and make a run toward a second straight NCAA appearance in large part due to their work on the mound. VCU is 19-10 this season and defeated defending National Champion Virginia on April 5. Despite shaky early performances, the Rams have carved out a 4.45 team ERA. In six A-10 games, VCU’s ERA is 2.21.
Despite some early concern, Thompson, who added 30 pounds to his frame in the offseason in order to shoulder an increased workload this year, says he could see potential in VCU’s new pitching staff during fall ball.
“I felt like in the fall I saw a lot of things people could do well. It just takes a good mindset and preparation to get people out at this level,” he said. We recruited them here because they had the ability, now it’s just harnessing that at this level.”
VCU’s 2015 runs to the Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship and the Dallas Baptist Regional crown were fueled by pitching. Led by eight seniors, the Rams posted a 2.92 team ERA on the way to a 40-25 season. Daniel Conception set the school saves mark (14), while setup man Matt Lees recorded a 0.74 ERA. Starters Heath Dwyer and JoJo Howie combined to win 18 games and chew up more than 200 innings. During one remarkable stretch last year, VCU allowed three runs or fewer in 16 straight games.
However, just five pitchers return from that 2015 group, and three of those threw fewer than 10 innings last season. Those five hurlers accounted for just 78 2/3 innings of the 576 2/3 thrown by the Rams in 2015.
VCU Coach Shawn Stiffler and his staff knew what they would face this season. VCU was set to return eight of nine starters in the field, and Stiffler wanted experienced arms to match. The solution for Stiffler and pitching coach Steve Hay was to pluck quality arms from the junior college level like Sam Donko (Iowa Western CC), Brooks Vial (Delgado CC), Jonathan Ebersole (Delgado CC), Matt Oxner (Gavilan College) and Luke Crabb (Dodge City CC) to supplement a staff that was talented, but young.
Stiffler and Hay were specific in the type of pitchers they recruited. They didn’t need projects who could light up a radar gun. They needed pitchers who could manage a game.
“What I didn’t want was to have to turn to a freshman and say, ‘You’re going to have to throw 100 innings this year,’” Stiffler said. “When you replace that many innings, you can’t go out and look just for stuff. We had to get guys we thought could come in and crank innings. So we combed junior colleges and stats and we looked for strike throwers.
“Because if we missed. If we missed on two or three of those guys, we were going to be in a lot of trouble.”
Halfway through the season, the plan appears to be working. Thompson (5-0, 3.40 ERA) has become the staff ace, while Vial (3-2, 3.83 ERA) has given the Rams a solid No. 2. At the back end of games, Donko has been nothing short of spectacular. In 15 appearances he’s recorded 11 saves, just three shy of the program record, and a 1.78 ERA. Other newcomers, like Ebersole, Crabb and freshman Michael Dailey have shown flashes of brilliance. In addition, junior lefty Matt Jamer, who threw just four innings in 2015, is 4-1 in 35 1/3 innings out of the VCU bullpen.
There was reason for concern early in the year. VCU allowed eight or more runs five times in its first seven games on the way to a 3-4 start. VCU the Rams are 16-6 since, and the pitching staff has posted an ERA under 4.00.
“I think a lot of us, including myself, were trying to be something that you’re not, trying to do too much,” said Vial. “I think once we kind of just stayed within the framework of our abilities and kind of just did what we were capable of doing I think we had a lot of success moving forward.”
“We kind of went back and talked as a group and talked with Coach Hay and just kind of said our whole demeanor needs to change, we need to be more competitive and that’s the main thing, competing when we’re out there, and that’s been paying off,” added Thompson.
While it’s not the most veteran pitching staff in the world, the Rams draw on their experience when they can. Thompson has shown maturity that belies his age, an attitude that is one part inherent and one part a product of his freshman season.
“Sean obviously has the experience on the staff that no one has,” said Donko. “I knew coming in that he was the prized possession on the staff. He brings a lot of great leadership about what we’re doing, what we’re doing wrong. He kind of just loosens it up a little, but it’s also very business-like. It’s kind of brought us into the level of baseball we’re at right now.”
“I think a lot of that is because who he was around last year,” Stiffler said. “He was around eight senior pitchers who all had success, who knew how to prepare themselves. That’s how you grow up, you grow up on ESPN. There isn’t much he hasn’t seen or handled yet.”
While Thompson’s reputation was established, Jamer might be the most pleasant surprise of the year. In previous two seasons, Midlothian native, had thrown a total of 22 1/3 innings for the Rams. This season he’s become the bridge to Donko in the bullpen.
“I think Matt Jamer is the hero of our team,” said Stiffler. “He has turned himself into a key veteran guy who I can’t say enough about. He literally has sat and watched for two years because there wasn’t a role for him. I’m so proud of him. I can’t sing his praises enough.”
The Rams have made the turn at the halfway point of their season. If VCU wants the second half to be as good as, if not better than, the first, Stiffler says the Rams have to continue to stick to the plan.
“They need to be themselves. If they continue to be themselves, then they can be consistent,” he said. “We didn’t bring them in here to throw the ball 95 miles an hour. We didn‘t bring them in here to go 10-1. We brought them in here because they were the exact guys we needed for a team of returning veteran positional players.”