Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sweating out wins

Baseball pulls out three comeback wins to sweep UNC-Asheville

The Liberty Flames baseball team (35-10, 19-1 Big South) completed a three-game sweep against the University of North Carolina at Asheville Bulldogs (12-32, 4-16 Big South) April 25-27. The Bulldogs are the sixth straight conference opponents to be swept by the Flames.

Liberty 7, UNC-Asheville 4

The Liberty Flames baseball team entered its Friday, April 25 contest with the University of North Carolina at Asheville Bulldogs looking to extend its streak of five straight series sweeps against Big South Conference opponents. In the end, the bullpens and some timely hitting decided the outcome, a 7-4 Flames victory.

SWING — Liberty used late-inning offense to beat the Bulldogs. Photo credit: Courtney Russo

SWING — Liberty used late-inning offense to beat the Bulldogs. Photo credit: Courtney Russo

The Bulldogs opened the scoring in the third inning with offense from the bottom of the lineup after a two-run home run by second baseman Kyle Towles.

The Flames answered with three runs in the fourth inning. Leadoff hitter Will Shepherd began the rally with a single. Ryan Seiz walked, and an infield hit by Alex Close loaded the bases with two outs for Danny Grauer.

He did not have to do much. Roland hit Grauer with a pitch, scoring a run. Dalton Britt then added two runs with a single to center field, making it a 3-2 Flames lead.

In the top of the fifth, a leadoff walk and an error by the shortstop, Britt, led to an RBI single for the Bulldogs, tying the game at three.

The Flames scratched out a run in the bottom of the inning to take a 4-3 lead when Ashton Perritt was hit by a pitch, stole second, took third when the catcher’s throw rolled into center field and scored on a squeeze bunt with Jake Kimble at the plate. The Flames and Bulldogs had both sent out tall, right-handed, senior starting pitchers to begin the series —Trey Lambert for Liberty and Dean Roland for Asheville — but neither dominated. The similarities between the starters did not end there, though.

Upon entering the eighth inning, each starter still had a chance to earn the win, despite not having pitched well. But when both left the game in the eighth inning without getting an out, the game was left up to the bullpens.

In the top of the eighth, Lambert surrendered two straight singles before being pulled in favor of relief pitcher Matt Marsh. A sacrifice bunt pushed the two runners into scoring position, and the Flames decided to load the bases with an
intentional walk.
With the bases loaded and one out, the tension grew with each pitch Marsh delivered. That is, until a palmball in the dirt escaped Grauer and rolled to the backstop for a wild pitch, scoring the runner from third.
Marsh walked the hitter at the plate to again load the bases, but this time, he was able to settle down and collect two straight swinging strikeouts. His effort ultimately earned him the win.
“I was trying to get the guy chasing and put too much on that pitch,” Marsh said. “It was tough to get my mind back straight. I just tried to worry about the next batter and shake it off, and that’s what I did.”
With Perritt warming up for a potential save opportunity in the left field bullpen, the Flames went to work in the bottom half of the eighth. Seiz opened the inning by pulling a triple down the right field line, which forced Roland’s exit. But the bullpen could not stop the bleeding.
An RBI single from Becker Sankey and a Close double followed. Later, singles from Perritt and Nick Lacik also drove in runs. When Perritt took the mound to close it out, the Flames had a 7-4 lead.
According to Flames Head Coach Jim Toman, moving up runners and scoring runs with small ball was a key to the victory when the bats fell silent.
“It’s been taking us a while to get going offensively,” Toman said. “I don’t know why. Maybe we have to be more assertive.”

Liberty 4, UNC-Asheville 2

A furious eighth-inning rally, led by key hits from Shepherd and Seiz, guided Liberty to a 4-2 victory over the UNC Asheville Bulldogs Saturday, April 26.

With two outs and the Flames down 2-1 in the eighth inning, Shepherd stepped up to the plate with pinch runner Kimble on second base. Shepherd hit a line drive past the outstretched reach of the Bulldog’s third baseman, driving Kimble home to knot the game at 2-2.

“I know that with runners in scoring position, you’re supposed to go up there and get the big hit, and I just don’t want to let my team down,” Shepherd said. “… Especially with two outs, I’m just trying to battle down and put the ball in play.”

A day after hitting a key triple in the eighth inning, Seiz hit a screaming line drive over the right centerfield wall for his 11th home run of the season, giving the Flames a 4-2 lead.

“I was just so happy that I was able to (hit that home run) for my team,” Seiz said. “I’m a really emotional baseball player, and being able to do that for my team is just awesome. I just love being in that clutch situation.”

The Flames were in need of the late rally after falling behind early in the game.

“I would prefer to get a lead than (do) what we did the past two days,” Toman said. “ … But the good thing is the guys are fighting, not panicking and realizing that if we hold them to three or four (runs), our guys will come back eventually.”

In the top of the first inning, Flames starting pitcher Blake Fulghum surrendered a leadoff double to Tanner Bush, who was eventually driven home on an RBI groundout by Robert McIntosh.

Liberty responded in the fourth inning by tying the game at 1-1. After a single to left field by Lacik, Shepherd laid down a sacrifice bunt, advancing Lacik to second base. Two batters later, after a strikeout by Seiz and walk by Sankey, Britt lined a single up the middle to plate Lacik.

The Bulldogs did not waste any time retaking the 2-1 lead, with another run in the top of the fifth on a double by first baseman Hunter Bryant, who was driven home from a triple by shortstop Hunter Smith.

The Bulldogs held the lead until the eighth when the Flames rallied with three runs to take a lead and hand the ball over to Perritt, who notched his 11th save of the season.

“We’re a good ball club, and we’ve shown a couple of ways we can come back, like we did in the eighth inning today,” Seiz said. “We can’t panic. We know that we have a great lineup.”

Relief pitcher Shawn Clowers improved his record to 6-0 on the season, working a scoreless seventh and eighth inning after relieving Fulghum, who pitched six innings while surrendering two runs.

The victory marked the Flames 16th straight win in the Big South competition.

Liberty 4, UNC-Asheville 3
The Flames and Bulldogs matched up for the third and final time in their weekend series on a sunny Sunday afternoon, April 27.

Freshman Parker Bean took the ball for the Flames and overcame two defensive errors made by his teammates to post seven solid innings of work, striking out nine batters. Despite his efforts, run support was few and far between, and it appeared that the Flames streak of sweeps would be snapped at five, with Bean taking the loss.

“I thought Bean was excellent, but we have to make some plays,” Toman said. “I know it only says two errors up there (on the scoreboard), but we didn’t make five or six plays. We got doubled off a couple times. We got thrown out (trying to) advance (on a wild pitch). We just didn’t play very well.”

Sankey and Close both hit solo home runs in the early innings, but the Flames entered the bottom of the ninth inning down 3-2. Although Asheville’s starting pitcher Corey Randall had been dominant all day, using his changeup to keep hitters off-balance, the middle of the Flames order stood between him and a complete game victory.

Shepherd led off the inning with a sharp ground ball to third and reached when McIntosh’s throw pulled the first baseman off the base for the Bulldog’s first error of the game.

A single by Seiz kept the line moving. Randall then hit Sankey with a pitch, which loaded the bases for the Flames. All of a sudden, the Flames, who had been outplayed for most of the game, had the tying run on third and the winning run on second.

As Britt stepped into the batter’s box, Asheville Head Coach Tom Smith called for an attempt to pick off Seiz on second base, a decision he later regretted.

Randall spun and threw to second base, but Seiz’s dive back into the base prevented Asheville shortstop Derek Smith from catching the ball. All three runners moved up, with Shepherd scoring the tying run.

“I’ll take the blame,” Smith said. “If it’s executed, it’s a close play, but maybe we pick up a cheap out.”

Before Britt could step back in the box, both managers employed a little strategy. Asheville center fielder Tanner Bush jogged in from his normal position to become a fifth infielder to the right of second base, and pinch runner Tray Roberts took over for Seiz as the potential winning run at third base.

Finally able to take his at-bat, Britt soon flied out to left field. Roberts took a few steps toward the plate, but stopped as the throw from Asheville left fielder Tommy Houmard sailed in to the plate.

Now with one out, the fifth infielder moved to the left side of second base for the right-handed hitting Close’s at-bat. Despite the five infielders, Close ripped a single down the third base line for a walk-off win by a score of 4-3.

“Ideally, in that situation, you want to get it in the air,” Close said. “… He left it up a tad, and I wasn’t going to go up there and take pitches.”

The Flames now plan to take more than a week off to rest and take exams. Their next scheduled game is May 7 in Charlottesville against the No. 1 University of Virginia Cavaliers.

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