KEYES’ INFLUENCE WRITTEN INTO VCU CHAMPIONSHIP BLUEPRINT

Leave a comment

VCU Rams1

Paul Keyes was 603-428-1 at VCU from 1995-2012 and led the Rams to eight NCAA appearances.

Paul Keyes was 603-428-1 at VCU from 1995-2012 and led the Rams to eight NCAA appearances.

RICHMOND, Va. – Working for Paul Keyes was not like Shawn Stiffler envisioned.

Keyes was already something of a legend in Virginia when Stiffler jumped from his alma mater, George Mason, to join the VCU coaching staff 2006. From 1998-2005, Keyes guided VCU to six NCAA Regional appearances and three CAA Tournament crowns. At 26 years old, Stiffler was eager to soak up strategy from one of the games’ most-respected voices.

But Keyes’ approach initially jarred Stiffler.

“It was day one. He would constantly talk to me about, ‘you’ve got to make this decision like you’re the head coach.’ As a young 26 year old I showed up here because I wanted to work for Paul Keyes. I wanted him to tell me what to do. But that wasn’t it at all,” says Stiffler.

Keyes didn’t want to give people around him the answers to their questions. He wanted them to find their own.

“It wasn’t easy for me. Coach Keyes is not a guy if you work for him who told you, ‘go up there and do X, Y and Z.’ If I said, ‘Coach we have nowhere to practice today.’ He’d say, ‘figure it out.’ But now I know how to do that. He just was one of those guys who would push you to push yourself. He stretched you every day. You had to be prepared for it. He did not believe in a routine.”

Keyes, a fierce competitor, savvy baseball mind, from-the-gut strategist, avid golfer and gregarious laugher, died in 2012 following a bout with melanoma. He won a school-record 603 games and directed VCU to eight NCAA bids in 18 seasons. His loss left a crater-sized void in the program.

On May 23, using more than a few of the foundational lessons he gleaned from six years under Keyes’ wing, with the vestiges of the longtime coach’s final recruiting class, Stiffler steered VCU to its first Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship.

It was Stiffler’s first conference crown as head coach, but in some ways, it felt like one final trophy for Keyes’ mantle.

More

PERFECT PITCH: VCU HURLERS HAVE RAMS IN CONTENTION

Leave a comment

VCU Rams1

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.”

More

UVA ON TAP: ‘HATS…KEEP BATS WARM’

Leave a comment

VCU Rams1

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.”

More

EVER-READY LEES SLOTTED FOR COMEBACK SEASON

Leave a comment

VCU Rams1

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.

More

9 REASONS TO GO TO VCU BASEBALL

Leave a comment

VCU Rams1

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.

More

HITTING MACHIN FIRING ON ALL CYLINDERS

Leave a comment

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.

More

MEET THE DIVE TEAM

Leave a comment

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.

THE BATTLE FOR RICHMOND

Leave a comment

VCU Baseball hosts Richmond at The Diamond for a three-game set to close the regular season. The series starts Thursday at 6 p.m., followed by an 11 a.m. contest on Friday and a  10:30 a.m. tilt on Saturday. The Rams (25-26) still have a mathematical shot at playing in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, so there’s more than just city bragging rights at stake.

DWYER LANDS STARRING ROLE AS VCU ACE

1 Comment

Sophomore Heath Dwyer is 6-5 with a 2.88 ERA for VCU this season.

Sophomore Heath Dwyer is 6-5 with a 2.88 ERA for VCU this season.

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.”

More

RAMS FIGHTING FOR A-10 BID IN SEASON’S FINAL TWO WEEKS

Leave a comment

Junior Joey Cujas leads VCU with a .326 average and 32 RBIs this season.

Junior Joey Cujas leads VCU with a .326 average and 32 RBIs this season.

RICHMOND, Va. – There’s no mystery about what the next two weeks mean to the VCU Baseball team. The Rams’ season boils down to six final Atlantic 10 Conference games, of which VCU will have to win the majority of to keep its season alive.

Seven teams will qualify for the A-10 Tournament May 22-25 in Charlotte. VCU (23-23, 8-10 A-10) is currently 10th, three games out of a conference tournament berth.

“Obviously, we understand completely what we’ve got to do,” said VCU Coach Shawn Stiffler. “The funny thing is that it’s not that far off of what we did last year. The only difference is…there’s a lot more teams in the league.”

In 2012, VCU started 7-12 in CAA play, but finished by winning seven of its final 10 conference games to capture that league’s No. 5 seed. The Rams eventually advanced within a game of the CAA Championship round.

If the Rams want to repeat that performance, now is the time to do it. The good news for VCU is that it will face two teams directly above the Rams in the A-10 standings. The Rams will travel to George Washington for three games May 10-12. The Colonials are 10-8 in the league and in eighth place. VCU will conclude the regular season at The Diamond May 16-18 with three games against rival Richmond. The Spiders are 11-7 in the A-10 and are tied with Saint Joseph’s and Xavier for one of the three final conference tournament slots.

The Rams know their backs are against the wall, but they’re not getting ahead of themselves. They can’t win six games at once.

More

Older Entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,683 other followers

%d bloggers like this: