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2007 Baseball Preview
Entering the 2007 season, the Liberty Flames look to continue the momentum and strides made over the previous two seasons. The Flames are coming off back-to-back 30-plus win campaigns for the fourth time in the program's 30-year history. Liberty won 39 contests in 2006, the most at by a Liberty team at the Division I level and one shy of the overall school mark of 40, set in 1983.
However, the Flames are not resting on past achievements coming into 2007 as last year's defeat in the Big South Championship final left unfinished business as head coach Matt Royer's squad looks to capture the school's first conference championship since 2000.
"Obviously, the way things ended last year left a bad taste in the mouths of the guys returning," stated Royer. "However, they have worked extremely hard this offseason, lifting weights and preparing for the season, and I believe they are ready."
Despite the loss of three of the top four hitters from last year's squad, two of whom were outstanding defensive infielders, hopes remain high due to a deep, experienced pitching staff.
"Coming into the fall, I thought our pitching staff was the deepest in my five years here, but some of the guys already have had health issues," commented Royer. "Pitching can be a key for us and it needs to be one of our strengths.
"There isn't a baseball coach who isn't saying that at this time, but it is a really important year for our pitchers to step up and be our team's cornerstone."
Unlike the luxury enjoyed during 2006 when the Flames returned all of their defensive starters, this season, Liberty will need to replace three players in the field. However, the cupboard is not completely bare as 11 letterwinners return from last season's squad along with 12 newcomers, several who seem capable of filling the vacancies immediately.
"We lost three really good position players in Phillip Laurent, Chad Miller and Michael Just from last season," noted Royer. "The great thing about baseball is that each year is different and you have a little different chemistry. We have a bunch of guys who are willing to do things to benefit the team such as bunt, move runners, etc. in order for us to win.
"I hope the cohesiveness I see in this team is a strength for us this season," continued Royer. "The players seem to be very unselfish and get along with each other very well. It makes them fun and pleasurable to be around.
"If your team goes out and wins, the individual things take care of themselves. People notice when you win games and championships. These guys seem to want to work together and have team goals at the top of their list."
A Look At the Flames By Position:
Liberty begins the 2007 season with a deep and experienced pitching staff. The Flames are looking for big things out of their mound staff as six of their top seven members return from a year ago. Add several newcomers to the established nucleus and the prospect for a solid season for the mound staff seems bright.
"The key for our pitching staff will be how the three players who got a lot of experience last year as freshmen, [Dustin] Umberger, [Dane] Beakler and [Tyler] Light, perform," stated Royer. "Dustin was throwing the best on the team by the end of last year and Dane and Tyler each got a year of experience. They need to step up and have solid seasons."
The Flames mound staff will be anchored by Michael Solbach, Ryan Page and Tim John, with each seeming ready to return to form after contending with health issues in 2006. Solbach, a late round draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks this past June, once again was among the Big South leaders in several categories last season, before battling health issues in May. Despite the inactivity late, the right-hander still finished with a 7-4 mark and 4.66 ERA in 85 innings. The redshirt junior also had a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio as he struck out 71 and allowed only 25 free passes. After a summer of strength work, he is expected to fill a starting role for the Flames.
The left-handed Page also comes off a solid 2006 despite health issues. The junior posted a team-leading 9-2 record and a team-low 3.59 ERA in 72 2/3 innings as both a starter and reliever. He finished fourth in the conference in wins and sixth in ERA. The lefty pitched his first collegiate shutout at George Washington in early March, before moving into the bullpen due to a problem in his lower forearm. Once again, Page will fill various roles throughout the season.
The lone senior on the Flame staff, John comes off his best season in 2006. The right-hander was a solid performer out of the Liberty bullpen, fashioning a 7-3 record with a 3.67 ERA in a team-high 25 appearances. He also came close to recording a strikeout for every inning pitched, striking out 54 in 56 1/3 innings. In the offseason, the right-hander had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, but has completed successful rehab and is set for the spring. A fiery competitor and leader, John is again expected to work out of the bullpen, but could also start in his last season with the Flames.
Joining the trio of upperclassmen are sophomores Umberger, Beakler and Light. Last season, the three quickly developed and shouldered many of the innings left due to health problems to the upperclassmen. After starting the season in relief, Umberger developed into a reliable starter in the second half of his freshman year. The right-hander finished the season 4-2 with two saves and a 4.99 ERA in 83 innings. He capped off his nine starts with a strong 7 1/3 inning outing in a 9-6 win over nationally-ranked Winthrop in Liberty's first game of the 2006 Big South Championship. He is expected to join Solbach as a starter.
Right-handers Beakler and Light also pitched 40-plus innings last season in both starting and relief roles. Beakler went 3-1 in 15 appearances. The sophomore enters the season having added 30 pounds to his frame through a summer strength and conditioning program. Meanwhile, Light also hit the weight room this summer in hopes of improving upon his 2-2 record in 43 1/3 innings last year.
Also, returning are sophomore Andrew Wilson and redshirt sophomore Doug Wallace. Wilson made 11 appearances in 2006 as he made the transition from the outfield to pitching. He will be in the mix for relief appearances, while Wallace, who was limited this fall due to knee problems, could be another left-hander out of the bullpen this season.
Rounding out the staff will be one junior college transfer and five freshmen. David Stokes, who transferred from Cypress Junior College in California, is expected to see considerable mound action this season. The 6-8 right-hander had a strong fall and could make an impact in his first season at Liberty.
Freshmen Grady Ihnat, Rusty Lajoie and Chase Vaden could end up seeing significant time throughout the year.
As anyone involved with college baseball knows, having a pair of capable catchers to shoulder the load of a 56-game season is important. Coming into the fall, Liberty thought it was set at catcher with its two backstops returning from last year. However, rising senior Abe Yeakel, who served as the designated hitter and a back-up catcher last season, hurt his shoulder this summer and was unable to rehabilitate it this fall. With him electing to miss the season for surgery, the Flames return No. 1 catcher Errol Hollinger and throw open the competition for the role of back-up catcher.
"Errol did a very solid job for us as a freshman and he looked very good this fall," commented Royer. "He was another one of our players this summer who worked hard to improve strength. We feel he can control our opponents' running game and throw a lot of people out.
"We also have Nathan Thompson and Cory Johnson," continued Royer. "One of those two guys is going to have to step up and get themselves ready to play in critical innings for us."
Liberty's top catcher in 2006, Hollinger hit .249 with 23 RBI and 25 runs scored in 54 games. More importantly, he finished second in the Big South by throwing out 23 would be base stealers, while providing solid defense. The sophomore once again will be penciled into the lineup the majority of the time behind the plate.
Thompson redshirted last year, while Johnson will begin his first collegiate season when the Flames open the season in February. They will compete for the back-up catcher spot.
"Backing up Errol, we are looking for somebody who can come in, block the ball and throw people out," added Royer. "If they hit real well, it is a bonus, but it is hard to play 56 games at catcher. One of those guys is going to have to show us he can come in and play solid defense when needed."
The Flames will have a different look in the infield in 2007 as they will need to replace former starters, second baseman Michael Just and third baseman Chad Miller, who provided outstanding defense during their careers. Not only did the two flash the leather, but last season were two of the Flames' top four hitters.
Despite changes elsewhere, a familiar face in Aaron Grijalva returns at first base. The lone returner among Liberty's top four hitters from a season ago, the redshirt junior began 2006 by being named to the Louisville Slugger Preseason All-American team and finished with a .347 batting average, 51 RBI and 56 runs scored. He also ended the year fifth in the Big South with 23 stolen bases and was selected to the Big South All-Tournament team.
Shawn Teufel and Cody Brown join Grijalva at first base. An excellent defensive player, Teufel, a sophomore, appeared in 32 contests, mainly as a defensive replacement in his first season as a Flame in 2006. Meanwhile, Brown will make a switch to the field after coming to Liberty as pitcher. This fall, the redshirt sophomore hit well and could see time at first, third and as the designated hitter.
Sophomore Tommy Bussey will open the season at second base. In 2006, he hit .290 in 20 games in his first collegiate campaign and provided solid defense in several starts in the middle infield. "Tommy has worked extremely hard to get ready for the season and probably has one of the best work ethics of anyone I have coached," stated Royer. "He is a total team player who will do what is needed for the team to succeed." Newcomer Andrew Weaver will also work at second.
At shortstop, another familiar face returns. For the third-straight season, Patrick Gaillard will be a member of the Flames' double play combination. Last season, he continued providing Liberty with excellent defensive play as he made just 14 errors in 58 games. After carrying a batting average over .300 for most of the year, before finishing at .299 and scoring 55 runs, the senior is expected to be a catalyst at the top of the batting order this season. David McCall will also be at the position in his first season of baseball at Liberty after playing soccer for Flames, the past three seasons.
Junior college transfer Aaron Phillips will begin the year in the other open position on the infield, third base. "We think Aaron will do a good job at third base," commented Royer. "He had a strong fall and has the skills to do well defensively."
Phillips was an East Jayhawk Conference All-Star last season at Allen County Community College as a shortstop. Depending on circumstances, he could also see time at that spot or second base.
Redshirt junior David Giammaresi could also see time at the position. In addition, the switch hitter may serve as the designated hitter.
Despite the loss of Liberty's all-time hit leader, Phillip Laurent, to graduation, the Flames appear to have a large supply of talent in the outfield.
"We are pretty well stocked out there right now," remarked Royer. "This group could be our best defensively in quite a while. Our speed out there should allow us to cover a lot of ground and if the ball is up in the air for a while, we should be able to get underneath it."
Not only does the outfield have depth, but defensively can play various outfield positions, providing Royer with interchangeable parts.
Returning for his third season for the Flames is P.K. Keller. Keller has been the starting center fielder the past two years, but this season, Royer hopes to move the junior to one of the corner outfield positions where he seems better suited defensively. Last season, Keller hit .282 with 39 RBI.
Joining Keller as returners who saw significant playing time in 2006 are seniors Derek Bennion and Phil John. Bennion played in 47 contests in a platoon with John in right field last year, providing solid defense. Meanwhile, John had an outstanding 2006 defensively in right field and after being inserted into the lineup on a regular basis, provided some left-handed punch to the line-up by hitting over .350 in March and April, before ending the season batting .308.
Tim Nanry rounds out the returners. After transferring from a junior college, 2006 was his first season at Liberty.
In addition, junior college transfers Kenneth Negron and Garrett Young are expected to impact the Liberty outfield right away. Negron, a sophomore, can play both left and center fields. The transfer will hit at the top of the Flame line-up and hopefully, put pressure on the opposition with his speed. Young will patrol center field. He also brings excellent speed and strong defensive skills. Freshman Jonathan Schneider may also see time in the outfield.
The 2007 Liberty schedule features 11 games with four teams which made the 2006 NCAA Tournament among its 56 contests. The Flames will play 32 contests at Worthington Stadium.
Liberty will open the year with six-consecutive road games as the Flames will travel to Greenville, N.C., on the opening weekend for a three-game series at East Carolina (Feb. 9-11). A perennial contender in Conference USA, East Carolina has been to the NCAA Tournament six out of the past seven years and has advanced to a Super Regional twice during that time.
Royer's squad will then travel to Charleston, S.C., the next weekend to participate in the Citadel Shootout (Feb. 16-18). Liberty will face South Carolina in their opening contest of the tournament Friday. South Carolina, a national power, has been to the College World Series three out of the last five years and is considered a contender to make the trip to Omaha, Neb., again this season. Saturday, the Flames will meet host Citadel, before ending the tournament Sunday against Richmond.
The 2007 Liberty squad will return home for its home opener at Worthington Stadium the following weekend by hosting Albany (Feb. 23-25) in a three-game series, before ending its February slate with the first midweek game of the year at VCU (Feb. 27) in Richmond, Va.
The Flames return home to host Manhattan (March 2-4) in a three-game weekend series to begin March. Manhattan defeated national seed Nebraska twice to reach a NCAA Regional final last spring.
In the midweek, the Flames travel to Norfolk, Va., to square off with Old Dominion (March 6), before coming back to Lynchburg to host George Washington for a three-game weekend series (March 9-11). A visit by Virginia Tech (March 13) to Worthington Stadium and a trip to James
Madison (March 14), the next afternoon in Harrisonburg, Va., will follow during the week.
The Flames will open a four-game homestand, including its first Big South Conference three-game weekend series of the season against Big South Champion UNC Asheville (March 16-18), followed by UMBC visiting for a midweek single game (March 21).
Liberty goes back to the road with a weekend conference call to High Point (March 23-25) for a three-game set and a single contest at George Mason (March 28) during the week.
The Flames then begin a span in which they play 15 of their next 16 games at home, hosting Monmouth for three weekend games. The two will close out March with a doubleheader (March 31) and open the April schedule with a single contest the following day (April 1).
William & Mary (April 3) visits for a midweek contest, before Marshall (March 6-7) comes to Worthington for a single Friday game and a doubleheader Saturday.
Liberty ends its string of seven-straight home contests by taking a trip to Williamsburg, Va., for a midweek night game at William & Mary (April 10), before returning to Big South action the following weekend by opening an eight game homestand with a three-game series against conference foe Charleston Southern (April 13-15).
A return meeting with James Madison (April 18) in the midweek follows, before Radford (April 20-22) comes to town for a three-game conference weekend series. The homestand ends with a second midweek meeting with George Mason (April 24).
Taking to the road for their next seven contests, the Flames will travel to Conway, S.C., for a three-game conference series with Coastal Carolina (April 27-29) to begin the span and end April.
May begins with a night contest against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., in the midweek (May 1), before Liberty travels across the country to Tucson, Ariz., to face one of collegiate baseball's most renowned programs, Arizona (May 4-6) in a three-game weekend series.
After breaking for exams during the week, Liberty closes out its home schedule the next weekend by hosting Winthrop (May 11-13) in a three-game Big South series.
The regular season ends with a trip over the Blue Ridge Mountains for the final Big South series of the year against VMI (May 18-20). In a new format, seeds five through eight will face each other the first day, with the winners advancing to the six-team double elimination tournament which begins the following day.
"The new format really puts an emphasis on finishing in the top four in the standings," commented Royer. "Being in the bottom four spots, a team will be in a must win situation right away."
The Big South champion receives the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.