The 2017 VCU baseball season begins Feb. 17 in Tallahassee, Florida where the Rams will begin a three-game weekend set against perennial College World Series contenders Florida State University.
Stacked from top to bottom, this year’s edition of Rams baseball features seasoned veterans as well as new faces. With a lineup full of matchup options and versatility to go along with a deep pitching staff, coach Shawn Stiffler is full of confidence as he enters his fifth full season at the helm.
The Rams had a stellar 2016 season, notching a 38-19 record. This marked the third straight season in which the team won 37 games or more. Stiffler exuded excitement in the team’s potential when asked how high the ceiling is for a program that has made immense strides the past few seasons towards establishing a winning culture.
“I felt like we were one of the top 40 teams in the nation,” Stiffler said. “I also felt that we were definitely a regional-caliber team.”
After the program’s first ever trip to Super Regionals in 2015, VCU’s 2016 postseason run fell drastically short of expectations after losing in the semifinals of the A-10 conference tournament.
2017 will be a year of renewal for the Rams. While they lost several key position players to graduation, including outfielders Jimmy Kerrigan and James Bunn as well as starting catcher Walker Haymaker and first baseman Cody Acker, many new faces will fill those gaps and solidify the starting lineup behind a pitching staff which did not graduate a single player.
The Rams’ batting lineup is filled to the brim with talent, and although they lost four everyday starters from last season, an assortment of veteran position players are ready to step in and fill roles. Senior outfielder Logan Farrar and senior first-baseman Darian Carpenter look to anchor a diverse lineup.
“I love the diversity and matchup variety we have, such as right-handers versus left-handers,” Stiffler said.
Coach Stiffler also noted the team’s versatility in their approach to scoring runs.
“Our lineup can score runs in multiple ways,” Stiffler said. “Whether it’s by virtue of stealing bases, extra-base hits, bunting, home runs, or traditional hits.”
The lineup is equally versatile in the field. Second and third base, as well as shortstop, will all be manned by new faces.
“Although we have six guys at new positions who didn’t play defense prior to this season, they have shown the athleticism and versatility that proves they can play multiple positions,” Stiffler said.
The Rams turnover in their lineup is offset by a veteran pitching staff.
“We were fortunate enough to return all of our pitchers from last year,” Stiffler said. “The entire rotation we have on hand is our biggest strength.”
Led by All-American senior closer Sam Donko, the pitching staff will have to be the Rams calling card in 2017.
Donko, a right-hander, led the nation with 20 saves last season. Donko was named to the NCBWA pre-season first team all-american squad on Feb. 2.
Senior left-hander Matt Jamer was another star on the pitching staff last season, showing off incredible versatility throughout the season as a starter and reliever. Appearing in 30 games in 2016, Jamer struck out 55 and only walked 19, while racking up six wins and two saves.
Sophomore starting right-hander Michael Dailey was simply sensational as a freshman and will look to once again set himself apart as the Rams ace and Friday-night starter. Dailey went 6-0 in 14 appearances last season while posting a team-leading 1.57 ERA. His performance was nationally recognized, as Dailey racked up a slew of awards including Atlantic-10 rookie of the year, Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American and All-East Region First Team.
Dailey, Donko and Jamer will be the cornerstones of the rotation, which also possesses many young, stellar arms, proving pitching is the least of the team’s worries. Junior right-hander Sean Thompson will look to channel his 2015 success on the mound after an injury derailed in 2016 campaign.
Right-hander Luke Crabb posted a 2.59 ERA last season, and returns to the bullpen as a factor in the Rams’ ability to close out games.
Stiffler isi in a jubilant mindset for the season only days away. He excitedly discussed how the team has evolved through the years and how the new players and veteran players form to create a melting pot of talent.
“We definitely have high expectations, and I know that from the caliber of this team and our established culture that we’re in position to have a great year,” Stiffler said.
He added that he was incredibly proud of the team for their work ethic, immensely enjoys coaching at VCU, and he is excited to build upon the winning culture that has formed over the past several years at The Diamond on Boulevard.
Adam Cheek, Contributing Writer