RICHMOND, Va. – The VCU Baseball team is gearing up for another run into the NCAA Tournament, and have the potential to do so with depth and pitching as their strengths. Holding onto All-American Sam Donko, and last year's A-10 Rookie of the Year Michael Dailey, VCU looks to continue their streak as one of only 14 programs to eclipse 37 wins over the last three years.
The Rams are up to that challenge, and Head Coach Shawn Stiffler and his coaching staff are ready to prove that, having arguably put together their toughest non-conference schedule since Stiffler took the helm of the Black and Gold. Their schedule for 2017 features 12 games with teams that played in an NCAA regional just a year ago.
"When we started putting the schedule together, it sort of took a life of it's own," said Stiffler. "The non-conference schedule when you add in Old Dominion, Virginia, North Carolina, and a three-game series with Liberty at the end of the season [to go with Florida State and UNC Wilmington] is as tough of a non-conference schedule as we've had. Then you look at the A-10, and it's always tough no matter who you play or where you play on a weekend."
Stiffler enters his fifth season at the helm for VCU, and states that this team is "the most fun he's ever been around". With a solid and deep pitching staff and personality that has now grown from their Super Regional run in 2015 to upperclassman, the Rams will also feature a modified look on offense that will also be fun to watch.
"I'm really excited about this team for many different reasons. We are a completely different makeup from what we've had the last two years. I think what we've done over the last two years has been reliant on our pitching and our defense, scratching together hits and getting timely runs, and on-base percentage. This group is a little different; they play a little looser, and offensively we are a little more wide open. We still have some of those basic concepts of what we've had on offense, but we will have a little more power in our lineup and a little more extra bases."
With the more powerful lineup that returns five of their top hitters from last year, led by senior and last year's home run leader Darian Carpenter, the Rams will look to play long ball and spray the gaps for extra bases. VCU also returns Logan Farrar, who led last seasons team in triples and stolen bases. Both have potential to create havoc in the top and middle of the lineup for many pitching staffs and set the table for the rest of the lineup.
Stiffler also noted the leadership and presence of senior Alex Gransback, who will play a key contributor for the program in many different ways. A member of the 2015 regional team, his role in 2017 will be expanded, along with junior Mitchel Lacey, who provides the Rams with a big swing mentality. That combination, along with Haiden Lamb, provides VCU with, as Stiffler stated, "the right combination of speed and power that we like."
"I don't see it as replacing guys who were speed and on-base guys" said Stiffler. "Guys like Lacey, or both Zac Ching and Brody Cook who saw significant time as freshman are all different players. The style of player those guys are creates a different dynamic on offense. With how powerful they can be, they create a high ceiling as they continue to develop."
Pitching has the potential to be the Rams most prized asset in 2017, with the return of their three top starters in Dailey, Sean Thompson, and Brooks Vial, as well as sprinkling in Donko as closer and senior Matt Jamer as a setup man to provide VCU with one of the most potent and underrated pitching staffs in the Atlantic 10 that can be valuable in a tournament setting in May.
"Our pitching staff is set up to win both mid-week and on the weekend. You need to have depth in your pitching staff to do that. For us, it will come down to a core five guys and what they are able to give us."
"On paper, we return a lot of pitching. If you just look down and see what everyone was able to do last year, everyone can just be themselves and try not to do too much. We will pitch enough to put ourselves in a position to win most games."
Youth will also come back into play for the Rams, as they will sport freshman on both sides of the ball. Freshman Paul Witt is projected to be the starting shortstop for the Black and Gold, while both catcher Josh Simon and utility man Brett Willett will both see significant time in the lineup throughout the season. Witt, according to MaxPreps, is the number one shortstop recruit out of West Virginia in his class, giving the Rams a staple in the middle of the infield for years to come.
Stiffler said, "Paul is going to be our every day shortstop. He is going to solidify that role and he has an advanced approach at the plate, and has the athleticism to play the position. It is going to be, like every young player, developing consistency everyday and learning how to work everyday."
On the pitching side, the Rams are looking to new additions in Connor Gillispie, Sam Ryan, Hayden Moore, and junior college transfer Ryan Fox to provide some extra competition and provide the Black and Gold with some reliable arms to look at in mid-week stints and postseason play.
"I am really excited about all of these new young guys, who all showed power stuff throughout the fall. The wild card will be Garrett Pearson, who can get himself into the mix and become the player we all think he is. If that happens, we are talking about adding an elite arm to your staff."
Defense is also the name of the game for the Rams, who used their strong pitching staff and solid defense to make their run in 2015. Now two years removed from that season, nothing has changed. With strong, athletic guys on the roster that will provide consistent defense, the Rams could be as good defensively as their 2015 squad.
"We are going to continue to play a style to where we make the other team earn everything they can get. That philosophy hasn't changed, and nothing in our defense has changed. We have just had to change some guys around, but our consistency will be there. Our coaching staff has done a tremendous job getting guys comfortable at new positions, setting them up to be successful."
With depth on the field, that has provided good competition in the lineup. That has given Coach Stiffler and his staff, "11 to 12 guys swinging the bats competitively, giving us multiple options" on how to set the lineup each game.
Picked to finish second in the Atlantic 10 Preseason Coaches Poll, the Rams are poised to add an A-10 Regular Season Championship to their resume. They will open up their season this Friday, Feb. 17 when they travel to Tallahassee to take on the Florida State Seminoles in a three game series.