CAP TIP TO BASEBALL & CATCHING UP WITH FORMER RAMS

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Lefty Heath Dwyer was 10-3 with a 3.01 ERA for VCU this season.

Lefty Heath Dwyer was 10-3 with a 3.01 ERA for VCU this season.

In case you missed it, VCU Baseball saw its season come to an end over the weekend after dropping a pair of games to No. 5 Miami in the NCAA Super Regionals. It was a heckuva ride, and we enjoyed every minute of it. The Rams went on a late-season tear – winning 13 straight games at one point – to win their first conference title since 2010 and reached the Super Regionals for the first time.

Looking ahead to next season, the Rams return nearly all of their starting lineup in the field, save starting shortstop Vimael Machin, who hit .339. The pitching staff, which posted an outstanding 2.92 ERA, will look completely different next season. Heath Dwyer, JoJo Howie, Matt Lees, Matt Blanchard, Daniel Concepcion, Tyler Buckley and Thomas Gill – seven of VCU’s most-used eight arms – all graduate. Look for right-hander Sean Thompson, who was outstanding as a freshman this year, to anchor that staff next season.

But your opportunity to cheer for some of those seniors may not be over. The 2015 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft begins tonight. The first and second rounds, plus compensation picks, will be held Monday beginning at 7 p.m. Although no Rams are expected to be called tonight, Tuesday’s action will include rounds 3-10, and Wednesday will include rounds 11-40. Hopefully a number of these guys will spend the rest of their summer playing Rookie ball somewhere.

ELSEWHERE…
Speaking of VCU Baseball players continuing their careers in the minors, keep your eye on former Ram Kyle Haynes. A 20th-round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in 2012, Haynes, now a member of the Yankees’ system, is throwing very well at Double-A Trenton. As of this writing, he’s dealing to the tune of a 1.82 ERA in 18 appearances. Trenton will be visiting the Richmond Flying Squirrels at The Diamond June 23-26.

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VCU BASEBALL: JUST SUPER

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VCU is just the fifth No. 4 seed to win a regional.

VCU is just the fifth No. 4 seed to win a regional.

VCU is where busting brackets happen.

In case you’ve been under a rock the last 48 hours, VCU Baseball captured its first NCAA Regional Championship Monday night with a 3-1 win over top-seeded Dallas Baptist in Dallas. The Rams are just the fifth No. 4 seed to advance to the Super Regionals. This is, in effect, NCAA Baseball’s “Sweet 16″.

VCU (40-23) will head to Coral Gables, where it will meet the Miami Hurricanes (47-15), the fifth overall seed in the tournament. The teams will play a best-of-3 series Friday, Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday. The winner will head to Omaha for the College World Series. All games are scheduled for noon. Friday and Saturday’s games will be televised on ESPNU. Sunday’s possible game would be broadcast on ESPN2.

This is crazy. All of it. On May 5, VCU was 26-22 following a loss to Norfolk State. The Rams needed to win their final six conference games just to make the Atlantic 10 Tournament. Now, they’re writing history every time they take the field. Some fun facts about this postseason:

  • Since May 7, VCU is 14-1.
  • VCU has not allowed more than three runs in any of those 15 games.
  • The Rams allowed a total of five runs in four Dallas Regional games.
  • Shortstop Vimael Machin batted 8-of-14 (.571) in the regional.
  • Senior lefty Matt Lees appeared in three of four regional games and threw 7 1/3 innings of 3-hit ball. He earned the save in Monday’s clinching victory with 3 2/3 innings of 1-hit relief.
  • Lees broke VCU’s career mark for appearances (120) Monday. His ERA this season is an absurd 0.76.

CLIPPINGS
A handful of stories on VCU’s historic win:

Plus, there’s stuff like this:

KEYES’ INFLUENCE WRITTEN INTO VCU CHAMPIONSHIP BLUEPRINT

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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.

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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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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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