Flames sweep home invite

Alex Close’s walk off RBI in the 11th inning lifts Liberty over Army

The new Liberty University Baseball Stadium played host to Army and Sienna College over the weekend as part of the Liberty Invitational. Playing in anything but summery weather, Liberty’s boys of summer won each of their four games in the invite, two against each team.

Friday vs. Army

Liberty University baseball fans who came out to cheer the Flames on to victory over the Army Black Knights, 6-4, in the Liberty Invitational Friday, March 1 witnessed history.

On a roll — Liberty has seven straight home victorites. Photo credit: Steven Abbot

Outfielder Nick Paxton hit for a cycle — the first one in nearly seven years and first in the new ballpark. His cycle started with a single, then a home run in the bottom of the third inning. Next came the triple, before finally the double in the seventh inning.

The last person to hit for a cycle was third baseman Chad Miller in 2006.

“It felt great,” Paxton said. “I haven’t hit one like that in a game ever, so it felt pretty good.”

The first two innings were scoreless until Army’s Grant Van Orden and Jon Crucitti scored in the top of the third. Liberty caught up later in the inning, when Nick Lacik singled and Paxton knocked him home with a two-run homer over the right field wall.

Lacik started the fifth inning with a walk, and then stole second and third. Third baseman Dalton Sype popped out, but Lacik made it home on the tag. Paxton was up next and hit a triple to right field, and then scored on a sacrifice fly from junior Ryan Cordell.

“When you have a close game like that, you just have to stay focused, but we were really confident because we’ve been swinging the bat well,” Cordell said.

The Flames kept the scoring run alive in the seventh inning. Paxton completed his cycle with a double. Cordell sent Paxton home with a single RBI, giving Liberty a three-run advantage (5-2). Justin Sizemore then brought Cordell home with a single to left field, putting Liberty up four.

The Black Knights came fighting back in the top of the eighth with two outs. With the bases loaded, Army’s Michael Sands hit a single, sending two home and making the score 6-4.

“We just wanted to play hard, and we knew Army was a good team, but we were confident with (Carson) Herndon on the mound,” Cordell said.

Starting pitcher Carson Herndon allowed two runs on five hits during the first five innings and walked two. Closing pitcher Josh Richardson posted his first save of the year.

Saturday vs. Sienna

Flames starting pitcher Brooks Roy threw 103 pitches in eight innings, picking up his second victory of the season against Sienna March 2, 4-0. He retired five batters and relied heavily on a defense that he described as essential to his team’s success.

“Honestly, I just have a great defense,” Roy said. “Cordell, Paxton, Lacik — all those guys. It’s pretty easy to pitch when you got those guys out there, tracking balls down, and our infield doing its job. I’m not a big strikeout pitcher, so it’s important to have a good defense, and they did the job today.”

Sophomore closer Ashton Perritt picked up his first relief win of the year, including one strikeout.

Liberty out-hit Sienna eight to six and played error-free baseball.

It was Cordell and second baseman Bryan Aanderud who kicked off the scoring for the Flames early in the bottom of the first inning. Cordell singled, and Aanderud followed with an RBI double into left centerfield.

Later, in the bottom of the third, left fielder Lacik singled into right field to start the inning and managed to steal second on the ensuing pitch. It was his first of two steals on the afternoon. Paxton popped out to deep right field, and Lacik advanced to third on the tag. Aanderud once again came through with an RBI double to score Lacik, which gave the Flames a 2-0 lead at the end of three.

In the sixth inning, the Flames offense found some rhythm — with a little help from the Saints. After Liberty shortstop Dalton Britt was walked, designated hitter Justin Sizemore hit a single inches above the outstretched glove of the Sienna second baseman. Britt advanced from first to third on the play. Third baseman Sammy Taormina followed and hit an RBI single, allowing Britt to score and sacrificing Sizemore at second.

First baseman Alex Close kept the rally going with a single on a ball that hit the shortstop’s glove before falling to the turf. Lacik was then walked to load the bases. This brought on a pitching change for the Saints.

Matt Quintana took the mound for the Saints against Paxton, but he hit Paxton on his very first pitch, allowing Sizemore to walk to home plate for the Flames fourth and final run of the afternoon. Lacik and Aanderud topped the offensive leaderboard for the day, each getting two hits and scoring one run. Aanderud’s two RBI’s led the team, as did Lacik’s two steals.

“It’s tough to face our lineup,” Roy said. “We’ve got guys that scrap and get on base, and we’ve got guys that hit the long ball as well, too, so it’s a
good mixture.”

Sunday vs. Sienna

Liberty baseball continued Sunday with a double-header — rematches against Sienna, and then Army. The Flames pitching staff went to work on the Saints in the first game, with Trey Lambert pitching seven scoreless innings, giving up only five hits and one walk, as well as striking out three in a 9-0 victory.

Relievers Kyle McKelvey and Blake Fulgham each chipped in one scoreless inning to preserve the shutout win for the Flames. On the offensive front, the Flames bats produced 13 hits with five players.

Sunday vs. Army

Later in the evening, fans and players got their first look at the new ballpark under the lights. The second game against the Black Knights became an 11-inning romp, wrought with twists and turns that would have been more richly enjoyed in warmer weather.

Temperatures below 40 degrees paired with strong wind gusts kept the flags fully unfurled and fans bundled in blankets.

Home field advantage — The Flames have outscored their opponents 22-7 in the Invitational. Photo credit: Steven Abbot

“It’s the coldest weekend I’ve ever played in my life,” Close said.

The Flames held a one-run lead at the top of the ninth when Army connected on an RBI single that tied the game at three.

After a hitless 10th inning for both teams, Army looked to have Liberty cornered in the top of the 11th, loading the bases with two outs. However, Liberty reliever Ashton Perritt mowed down the next batter in the lineup, who struck out swinging.

In the bottom of the 11th, Sizemore singled to lead off and Wimmer followed by a single that advanced Jake Kimble — who ran for Sizemore — to third base. Next up for the Flames was Close.

“I’ve been struggling lately. I’ll be the first to admit that,” Close said. “If I go into the batter’s box and don’t tell myself that I’m the best hitter, and continue to tell myself that I’m a good hitter, and the pitcher has no shot to get me out, I’m going to get out every time. So my thoughts were, ‘You’re a dang good hitter. You’ve just got to put the bat on the ball, and good things are going to happen.’”

Luckily for the Flames, Close put his bat on the ball to the tune of a walk-off RBI single.

“We’ll give all the glory to God. That’s what we’re playing for — an audience of one,” Head Coach Jim Toman said. “I’m so proud of my players for battling. … The idea is to score one more run than your opponent, and that’s basically what we did here tonight.”

The Flames only allowed three runs in four games throughout the invitational, thanks in large part to a deep bullpen. Toman was pleased with his pitching staff and looks forward to making use of even more of them throughout the next few games.

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