April 23, 2013

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Cujas drives in four as VCU nips ODU in Key Dog Classic


By Phil Stanton

phil@collegebaseballinsider.com @roadtoomaha


HAMPTON, Va. – The magic number for the night was 5.


Joey Cujas had a two-run homer in the top of the seventh to snap a 3-3 tie and lift VCU to a 5-4 win over Old Dominion Tuesday evening in the inaugural Key Dog Strike Out Cancer Classic at War Memorial Stadium.


“On the schedule it’s another W, but I think we all know it’s a little bit more than that,” said VCU head coach Shawn Stiffler (pictured after having his head shaved in a benefit for pediatric cancer). “That one’s special to me. You remember your first one probably and you remember your last one but I’ll always remember the first Key Dog Classic.”


The game was played as a fund-raiser in the memory of Paul Keyes, former ODU student-athlete, VCU head coach and Hampton native who passed away this past fall from cancer at the age of 50. Keyes, known at Key Dog, wore No. 5 during his career with the Rams, posting 603 wins in 18 seasons.


“The first thing to say is the winning team had five,” ODU head coach Chris Finwood said. “I was talking about that with somebody this morning and I said I bet the winning team is going to have five tonight. When Cujas hit the home run to put them up at five, I thought we might be in trouble.”


Vimael Machin was hit by a pitch with one away in the seventh before Cujas crushed a 2-0 offering far over the left-field fence to put VCU up 5-3.


“I got ahead in the count and was sitting on a fastball,” Cujas said. “I wanted to help my team win this game. It was extra important for us to play hard for Coach today. We’ve been playing hard for him all year but today was extra special for the event.”


The Rams (20-19) had chances to build on their lead, but stranded a pair in both the eighth and ninth.


The Monarchs (21-19) were retired in order in the seventh and eighth before staging a rally in the bottom of the ninth. Michael Perez had a one-out double to the gap in right center and Tyler Urps was hit by a pitch. Connor Myers hit a come-backer to the mound which forced out Urps at second. Leadoff man Ben Verlander, the top hitter for ODU, was dealt a series of curve balls from Matt Lees. He hit a nubber to third that he beat out for an infield hit that plated Perez to make it a one-run contest. Josh Eldridge grounded out to second to end the uprising and the contest.


ODU started the scoring in the bottom of the second. Austin McGowan drew a one-out walk and was forced out at second on a Jordan Negrini fielder’s choice. Negrini stole second and scored on a base hit by Perez to give the Monarchs the early lead.


VCU took the lead in the top of the third. Malan drew a leadoff walk and moved to second on a base hit by Bill Cullen. Both runners moved up 90 feet on a sac bunt by Machin and both scored on a single to center by Cujas to give the Rams a 2-1 advantage.


“I was sitting on the first pitch,” Cujas said. “I wanted to work early in the count. They got me out with a fastball before so I had a pretty good idea what was coming. I tried to stay in the middle of the field and drive a couple runs in.”


The Rams added a run in the fourth as Landon Prentiss singled with one away and scored on a hit-and-run double by Jordan Weymouth as VCU took a 3-1 lead.


The Monarchs pulled to within one in the bottom of the fourth, but could have had more. Ben Slaton and Josiah Burney had singles to start the inning. McGowan hit a high popup into shallow left field. Shortstop Machin drifted back, but the ball carried past him. Left fielder Prentiss appeared to not see the ball and it fell to the grass. The infield fly rule was not called. Machin alertly picked up the ball and fired to third to force out Slaton. The relay throw to second beat Burney to give the Rams an unorthodox 6-5-4 double play. McGowan did scored on a double by Negrini to make it a 3-2 contest.


ODU tied it in the fifth as Verlander reached on a dropped fly ball in center and scored on a base hit by Eldridge.


Seth Greene (2-1) earned the win in relief, going 3.1 innings with two hits, one unearned run, no walks and five strikeouts. Lees (2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 2 K) recorded his eighth save.


Tommy Alexander (1-3, 4 H, 2 R, 1 BB) fanned eight in four relief innings, but made the one bad pitch on the homer to Cujas and suffered the loss.


“Tommy’s been throwing the ball well for us lately,” Finwood said. “He’s getting better and better. He looks like he’s going to be a guy who can throw a lot of big innings for us in the future. It was coming out of his hand pretty good tonight.”


Would Key Dog have enjoyed the game?


“I think he would have been proud of how the game went,” Finwood said. “Both teams played pretty good. It was a well-played game, hard fought by both. The big home run by Cujas was the difference.”


“He would have enjoyed everything except the fact that it was about him,” Stiffler said. “But beating Old Dominion, he would have enjoyed that.”




Both teams wore special jerseys, which were available by silent auction during the game.


“A lot of excitement,” Cujas said about the event. “Everyone wanted to come out here and play their best and make sure we got the win. We were happy to get these new jerseys with PK5 on them. It was pretty cool.”




Following the game, members of both teams had their heads shaved at home plate for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. More than $4,000 was raised to fight childhood cancer.


“The big thing was getting this started,” Finwood said. “I’m hopeful that we can make this an annual event and grow it into a big deal here on the peninsula to keep on honoring Paul. We don’t just want it to be a one-year thing. We want this to be a starting point. There’s so many great things happening tonight with the St. Baldrick’s head-shaving for children’s cancer, the jersey auction, all those things are in his honor. We’re awful happy to be a part of it.”




Several members of the Keyes family were in attendance. Paul's wife, Trisha, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Sons Paul Jr. and Kyle were also present. Daughter MacKenzie is a freshman softball player at Central Connecticut and was unable to attend.




The game was played at historic War Memorial Stadium in Hampton, the home of the Peninsula Pilots of the Coastal Plain League. Construction of the original stadium began in 1947. The stadium was initially home to the Class A affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Several minor league clubs played there prior to the arrival of the Pilots in 2000. Former Virginia third baseman and current Washington National, Ryan Zimmerman, played for the Pilots in 2003. The stadium looked very good, with new brick dugouts and brick wall behind home plate as well as a new press box.




VCU head coach Shawn Stiffler would not get to sleep in after the thrilling win. He and his wife, Jenn, were scheduled to be at the hospital early Wednesday morning for the birth of their second child.

(photos by Phil Stanton)