PERFECT PITCH: VCU HURLERS HAVE RAMS IN CONTENTION

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Closer Daniel Concepcion (2.03 ERA, 8 saves) is one of a number of VCU pitchers enjoying career seasons.

Closer Daniel Concepcion (2.03 ERA, 8 saves) is one of a number of VCU pitchers enjoying career seasons.

RICHMOND, Va. – The VCU Baseball team is loaded with pitching talent, and that includes the dugout.

Head Coach Shawn Stiffler and first-year Pitching Coach Steve Hay, longtime friends and former high school teammates, were both accomplished pitchers in college at George Mason and Webber International, respectively. Stiffler served as a pitching coach at Mason and VCU for the better part of a decade before assuming taking over as Rams head coach in 2012. Hay succeeded Stiffler as George Mason pitching coach and produced eight productive seasons for the Patriots. Combined, Stiffler and Hay boast nearly a quarter-century of experience mentoring college pitchers.

It should come as no surprise that as VCU (24-16, 7-5 A-10) readies for a pivotal series with league rival Rhode Island this weekend, the Rams lead the Atlantic 10 Conference and rank in the top 30 nationally in both ERA (2.93) and strikeouts (338).

Stiffler’s teams have generally pitched well, but Hay’s influence appears to be having an impact this season. Senior left-hander Matt Lees, who pitched hurt and saw his ERA balloon to 5.45 last season, has allowed one earned run in 38 innings this year (0.24 ERA). During the fall, Lees and Hay worked to find a more comfortable arm slot for the senior lefty. The result of those labors has been one of the best seasons by a VCU reliever in recent memory.

Senior starters JoJo Howie (4-4, 3.06 ERA) and Heath Dwyer (5-2, 3.32 ERA) have been their usual, outstanding selves, while hurlers like senior closer Daniel Concepcion (2-2, 8 saves, 2.03 ERA) and classmate Tyler Buckley (2-0, 1.71 ERA) – who threw just 5 2/3 innings last season – have really hit their stride this year.

Earlier this week, VCU limited Maryland, the Big Ten’s highest scoring team, to just two runs in back-to-back wins over the 21st-ranked Terrapins.

“It’s all to their credit,” Hay says of VCU’s staff. “They’re good. It’s recruiting. They recruited good guys for me to walk into. They’ve obviously coached them up for three years.”

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HEY, WHATEVER WORKS, RIGHT?

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Baseball players are a special breed. I think even they would tell you that. Long seasons, rain delays, bus trips. These guys have a lot of time on their hands to get creative. They also tend to be superstitious, as anyone who saw Nomar Garciaparra’s at-bats will attest. With that in mind, VCU Baseball has a rally tiki this year. They call him Monty.

 

UVA ON TAP: ‘HATS…KEEP BATS WARM’

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VCU senior left-hander Heath Dwyer is 4-1 for VCU this season with a 3.46 ERA.

VCU senior left-hander Heath Dwyer is 4-1 for VCU this season with a 3.46 ERA.

RICHMOND, Va. – VCU may be facing 14th-ranked Virginia at an opportune time. The Rams are hitting the baseball at an impressive rate, a trend they hope continues deep into Tuesday evening.

Senior shortstop Vimael Machin has led the way. Machin, who was named Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Week on Monday, is in the midst of a 15-game hitting streak. He was 11-of-18 with six RBIs and a gaudy .696 on-base-percentage in five games last week for the Rams.

Machin was already an accomplished hitter – he entered the year batting .299 for his VCU career – before his recent hot streak, but he’s on a different level right now. Machin is batting .363 overall, eighth in the A-10, with 23 RBIs.

In addition, centerfielder Logan Farrar was 11-of-23 last week, including a 5-of-6 performance in Friday’s 16-3 win over UMass. He is hitting .303 this year with a .421 on-base-percentage, second only on the team to Machin.

Behind his lead, VCU outscored its opponents 52-7 last week. VCU Baseball Coach Shawn Stiffler says there’s a correlation between warm bats and warm weather.

“I think the biggest thing has been consistency in our routine,” he said. “I think the weather has broken, and to be able to get out here for practices on days like this and continue to work on our game. Everyone always knows, when the weather heats up, so do the bats, usually.”

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EVER-READY LEES SLOTTED FOR COMEBACK SEASON

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Senior Matt Lees is 4-0 with a 0.00 ERA in 18.1 innings this season.

Senior Matt Lees is 4-0 with a 0.00 ERA in 18.1 innings this season.

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.

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9 REASONS TO GO TO VCU BASEBALL

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Senior Matt Lees hasn't allowed a run in 12 appearances this season.

Senior Matt Lees hasn’t allowed a run in 12 appearances this season.

My first organized baseball experience was an unmitigated disaster. I was 11, and an aspiring third baseman for Luciano’s of the Austintown Little League – we didn’t have fancy team names; we just slapped the font of whatever funeral home or local eatery ponied up 100 bucks to buy the uniforms on the jersey. My dad, a firm man with little patience for the frivolous concerns of 11 year olds, was the coach.

We were terrible by every measure. In two seasons, we went 5-25. I played one year with my dad’s softball glove, which was so large that on at least one occasion, I lost a ground ball in it. We lost one game 22-1. This was not the Little League World Series Regionals you see today on ESPN. This was the “Bad News Bears” without Kelly Leak to save us.

Whether by masochism or persistence, baseball stuck with me, and not a spring comes around where I don’t have a twinge to go shag fly balls. That’s why it’s nice when we clear our desks of basketball’s bustle, baseball is there waiting for us. VCU Baseball is waiting for you too, out at The Diamond. If my tale of childhood failure and triumph wasn’t enough to compel you to take in a game, here are a few more reasons to go see the Rams this spring.

1-Dollar Hot Dogs. I’m really not sure why I need to explain this, as it should be self-evident, but I will, just in case there are some savages among us. For every weekday game at The Diamond, VCU Baseball will offer hot dogs for one single, glorious American dollar bill. If you’re a sweet-talking lad, you might even be able to procure a dog for four Canadian quarters, but you didn’t hear that here. Hot dogs and baseball go together like Shaka Smart and Havoc. You can have one without the other, but why would you? Also, don’t trouble me with your self-righteous bluster about hot dog ingredients. I don’t know how a carburetor works either, and I’m cool with that.

2-Everybody loves a winner. The Rams have won nine of 12 heading into Wednesday’s game with Longwood. They viciously drubbed VMI 18-0 Tuesday. Just reading that score game me Little League flashbacks, but without the sweet, sugary embrace of postgame candy from the concession stand.

3-JoJo Howie. The senior left-handed hurler has a little bit of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych in him. Sometimes he talks to the baseball, as well as other endearing quirks. It usually listens, too. He was 7-3 last season and threw four complete games. He’s also doing it while dealing with a mild form of muscular dystrophy. JoJo is a bad mofo.

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RAMSANITY 2014

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The VCU Baseball team held its annual “Ramsanity” challenge. It was so insane I pulled a hammy watching it. Senior pitcher Heath Dwyer was the individual champion in 23:28.

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Dwyer later celebrated by wearing this shirt:

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VIDEO: VCU BASEBALL A-10 TOURNAMENT PREVIEW

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Fourth-seeded VCU is headed to Saint Louis in search of an Atlantic 10 Championship. The Rams open with fifth-seeded Richmond on Wednesday. Go get ’em, boys.

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.

VCU BASEBALL OFF TO BLISTERING START

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Folks, I realize we’ve been caught up in a frenetic basketball daze for the last five months, but it’s time to take notice of the VCU Baseball team. The Rams are off to a blistering 20-3 start and have now broken into the USA Today Baseball Top 25 Poll for the first time since 2003. Over the weekend, the Rams opened A-10 play by sweeping St. Bonaventure at The Diamond. Take notice, friends.

VCU is on the road this week, but the Rams return home for a five-game stint April 2-8, so I hope to see some friendly faces over on The Boulevard.

RAMS SWEEP ST. BONAVENTURE

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