Baseball commenced its season with a three game road swing in Georgia. Head coach Shawn Stiffler and company won two and lost one in the Peach State while putting up a gaudy 24 runs.
The Rams defeated Kennesaw State University on Feb. 19 by a score of 15-11. Sat., Feb. 20, the Rams rallied to overcome an early deficit and finished with 8-6 victory against Georgia State University. VCU closed out the weekend with a 9-1 loss to the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Kennesaw State University
To say the Rams got off to a hot start at the plate against the Owls of Kennesaw State would be an understatement – they came out on fire.
Senior outfielder James Bunn got the ball rolling with a leadoff triple that may have left a dent in the center field wall. Junior third baseman Matt Davis drove him in with a two-run blast over the right field fence to give VCU a 2-0 lead in the first inning.
Bunn was just getting started, though. His three-run homer over the left field fence the next inning broke the game open and the Rams’ lead grew to 6-0. Then, senior catcher Walker Haymaker belted a grand slam over the center field wall to highlight a seven-run third inning that put the game out of reach.
Starting pitcher Brooks Vial had a solid VCU debut, going six innings and allowing eight hits and four runs while striking out two and walking one. The Delgado Community College transfer picked up the win by pitching-to-contact effectively all day, and letting the team’s veteran defense work behind him.
Georgia State University
VCU followed up the offensive explosion with another impressive day at the plate against Georgia State. Starting pitcher Sean Thompson gave up a first inning solo home run before a flurry of base-knocks in the second inning pushed two more across the plate to create a 3-0 deficit.
The Rams scored their first run in the top of the fourth inning on an errant throw to first base after senior outfielder Cody Acker laid down a bunt. Freshman Brody Cook perfectly executed a hit-and-run later in the inning to score another run and cut the Panthers lead to one.
VCU got to the GSU bullpen in the fifth inning after two walks by its starter. This would prove to swing the tide of the game — the Panthers relievers struggled through the remainder of the contest.
Haymaker and sophomore infielder Mitchel Lacey came up with clutch hits with runners in scoring position to tie the game at 4-4. The Rams took the lead in the sixth inning when Davis scored on a Carpenter groundout and they would not look back.
Thompson got the win and was able to fight through the early damage to put together a quality start. The sophomore finished with nine hits and four runs allowed, while striking out five and walking two in five innings.
Junior reliever Sam Donko picked up the save and pitched the Rams out of a jam in the eighth inning before working a flawless ninth inning for the second consecutive game.
A Sunday matinee matchup with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets put a damper on the Rams otherwise successful road trip.
An error in the second inning by the Georgia Tech first baseman helped VCU take an early 1-0 lead. The cushion was short-lived, however. The Yellow Jackets tied the game in the bottom half of the inning when Connor Justus singled, stole second, advanced to third on a wild pitch and then scored on a single.
A subsequent three-run third inning chased VCU starter Matt Oxner from the game and effectively put things out of reach. Tech’s starter Jonathan Hughes silenced the Rams bats with six innings of shut-out work before three relievers closed things out. The Yellow Jackets held VCU to just five hits on the day.
Stiffler said that the pitching staff, not the Rams explosive offense, is where his focus will be in the early going.
“I know what I’ve got in some of these older guys,” Stiffler said. “Last year we had veteran pitching and youth in the field. This season we’re the opposite, so what I’m really looking at is for some of these young guys to get an opportunity to pitch in big spots and we’ll see how roles fall from there.”
VCU’s home opener originally scheduled for Wed. Feb. 24 was postponed due to weather. No make-up date has been announced as of publication.
Eastern Kentucky University
The Rams opened their second weekend series of the year on Friday, February 26 in Wilmington, North Carolina against Eastern Kentucky University. The Colonels defeated VCU by a final score of 12-2.
Cody Acker had a strong day at the plate, going 3-3 with one RBI and a walk. Vial took the loss on the mound despite a decent appearance – the lefty gave up three runs on seven hits while striking out five and walking just one.
The Rams bullpen was their downfall. Relievers behind Vial, let EKU errupt for nine runs in the final four innings, which turned a close game into a blowout.
Coach Stiffler and the boys return to the Diamond on March 4 for a seven game home stand that will conclude on March 13.
Zach Joachim, Contributing Writer