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2010 Flames Baseball Season Preview

February 15, 2010  Lynchburg, Va.  RSS
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2009 Big South Conference first team pitcher Shawn Teufel

2009 Big South Conference first team pitcher Shawn Teufel

The Liberty Flames baseball team opens its 2010 season, Friday at Kennesaw State. Below is a look at the upcoming 2010 campaign.

After posting 68 wins, the most by a Liberty head coach in his first two seasons, under Jim Toman, the 2010 Liberty Flames baseball team will look to continue the program's progression by capturing a Big South Championship and participating in a NCAA Regional for the first time since 2000.

"We have to take that next step," stated Toman. "And, the next step is winning the conference's regular season title or winning the Big South tournament, and getting into a NCAA regional."

With seven of their eight position starters back from last season's 33-21 squad and the addition of several new pitchers to bolster the mound staff, the Flames are optimistic about their chances of obtaining their goals this season.

"I am pleased with the depth of our team," noted Liberty's third-year head coach. "We have several capable players at each position and 16 pitchers. We will have a lot more options to go to and a lot more moves that we can make during a game.

"With a stronger bullpen, I think we will be able to shorten games. In the past, we didn't have enough people in the bullpen we could go to. But now, we have at least seven guys we can count on to come in at any point in the game and shut down the opposition."

The Flames will return 17 players, including its entire starting infield, from last year's roster. Last season, Liberty had the highest fielding percentage (.974) and committed the fewest errors (53) in the 37-year history of the program. In addition, the Flames welcome back three members to their roster, who sat out last season.

Liberty will add 13 new faces to its roster in 2010. Nine of the baker's dozen are pitchers.
"A lot of our returning guys did well in the fall, and several of our newcomers look like impact players," stated Toman. "By the time spring rolls around, we should have everyone healthy and ready to go. It should be an exciting team."

A Look at the Flames By Position
Pitching

The Liberty mound staff this season will be given a boost by the return of right-hander Dustin Umberger and left-hander Shawn Teufel. The seniors are expected to fill two of the three weekend starting spots in the Flames' rotation.

"Dustin is well on his way back to health after sitting out last year due to injury," said Toman. "He has been a fixture of the pitching staff in his previous three seasons and we expect him to be one of our top guys.

"Shawn Teufel returns after a nine-win season and Steven Evans comes off a seven-win campaign last year. I would expect them to be in our rotation also."

Umberger enters his final season in a Liberty uniform ranked seventh on the school's career strikeout list with 194. The team captain has logged 267 innings for the Flames, posting a record of 17-10 with three saves. In 2008, Umberger led the Big South Conference with 88 strikeouts in recording an 8-3 mark with a 3.80 ERA.

Teufel, also voted a team captain, earned first team All-Big South honors in 2009. The left-hander finished the year second in the Big South with nine wins and third with 72 strikeouts. He was also among the conference leaders in ERA (4.33). Teufel went 9-2 in 14 games over 72 2/3 innings, winning six consecutive starts from March 22 to May 2.

Evans went 7-2 with a 3.96 ERA and a save in 2009. The junior left-hander appeared in 16 contests, tying Teufel for the team-high in innings pitched by logging 72 2/3 innings.

The trio of returners will be joined by newcomer Keegan Linza as a starter. The 6-5 right-hander transfers to Liberty from Northwest Florida State Community College, where he was an all-conference performer.

"We have at least eight pitchers behind those four who did well enough in the fall that we think we can use in the spring," commented Toman.

Heading that group is senior Carter Browning, who was used solely out of the bullpen last season. The right-hander was second in the Big South and led the Flames with 29 appearances in 2009. Browning recorded a 2-2 mark with four saves and a 3.94 ERA over 48 innings.

He will be joined by fellow right-handed returners, sophomore Chris McDougal, who saw mound time in 15 contests in 2009, and senior Dane Beakler, who returns to the roster after receiving a medical redshirt last season.

Freshmen Josh Richardson and Cameron Giannini, along with juniors Bryan Cole, J.J. McLeod and Chris Roach will see plenty of mound time this season. Zane Bator, Daniel Brown, Tim Dudley and Josh Healey will also compete for innings.

Catchers
For the first time in four years, a new face will be behind home plate for the Flames. Four-year starter Errol Hollinger graduated this past May, leaving the position open to competition for the first time since 2005. However, Toman likes the options he has at the position.

"We have three guys who are good enough to be there come the spring," stated the former catcher. "Nathan Thompson stepped up this fall and preformed well, Jerry Neufang is a highly touted junior college transfer and Trey Wimmer, who started at first base last year, is also a front line catcher. So, I feel like we have several guys who can get it done behind the plate."

Thompson, a senior, was selected by his teammates as a team captain in the fall. The senior has a career .270 batting average, while Neufang transfers from South Florida Community College, where he was named to the Florida Junior College All-State team and led the state of Florida's junior colleges with 17 home runs last season.

Wimmer rounds out the possible candidates at the spot. In 2009, he saw all his game action at first base.

Infielders
The Flames return all four starters on the infield from last year's squad. Starting three freshmen and a junior college transfer, the Liberty infield helped the 2009 Flames set a school record with a .974 fielding percentage and commit the fewest errors ever by a Liberty team with 53 over 54 games.

"We didn't know what to expect from this group last year as they were all new, but they ended up helping us to set a school record for fielding, which is very impressive," noted Toman about his infield. "They are all back this year, which is great, plus we brought in three new infielders who are pushing those guys."

At first base, Wimmer, a sophomore, returns after hitting .299 with 32 RBIs, six doubles and six home runs in 53 games last season. Joining him at the position is freshman Justin Sizemore, who had a strong fall and is pushing for playing time, and senior Zane Bator. Both Sizemore and Bator could also be in the line-up this spring as the designated hitter.

Senior P.J. Jimenez returns at second base. Last season, Jimenez committed four errors in 51 games and was named to the 2009 Big South All-Tournament team. At the plate, he swung a hot bat in the second half of the season, finishing the year with a .271 batting average, 13 doubles and four home runs.

At shortstop, sophomore Matt Williams will look to build upon his solid freshman campaign of 2009. Williams, who also was the Flames' leadoff hitter last season, started all 54 games, making only 10 errors and hitting .283 with 12 doubles and 49 runs scored.

At third base, 2009 Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American Tyler Bream returns for his second season at Liberty. Despite having his season cut to 46 games due to injury last year, the sophomore hit .337, while finishing the season third in the Big South with 57 RBIs and ninth with a .572 slugging percentage. Bream also had 16 doubles, two triples and eight home runs in his maiden season in a Flames uniform.

According to Toman, newcomers Josh Richardson and Austin Taylor are pushing for playing time at the middle infield positions and third base, giving Liberty five options at the three positions. Richardson, a freshman who also could see time on the mound, was the 2009 Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association (VISAA) State Player of the Year, while Taylor, a junior college transfer, was a 43rd round draft pick out of high school by the Cincinnati Reds in 2007.

Outfielders
Just like the rest of the roster, the Flames return several players with significant playing time during their Liberty careers in the outfield for 2010.

"We have seven outfielders and even a few infielders we may move to outfield," noted Toman. "Who plays out there, especially left field, may depend on who is hitting the best at the time.

"It is a good problem to have, as we have a bunch of guys out there who can swing the bats a little bit."

Leading the outfield returnees is 2009 Big South All-Conference first team member Curran Redal. The senior is expected once again to roam center field for the Flames. Last season, Redal hit .380 with 42 RBIs and 50 runs scored. In addition, he had 13 doubles, four triples and six home runs, while being one of the hardest hitters in the nation to strikeout in 2009, ranking ninth in the country by fanning only once per 21.3 at bats. The outfielder set a Big South record by hitting safely in 32 consecutive games last season.

In left field, experience abounds, but who mans the spot remains unsettled. Returners Doug Bream, Jeff Jefferson, Kenneth Negron, Justin Richardson and Kizuku Scott are all vying for playing time in left field.

Doug Bream played in 46 games, with 34 starts in the outfield last season. The junior hit .355 with 33 RBIs, 13 doubles and six home runs. Meanwhile, Jefferson, also a junior, played in 38 games, all in the outfield in 2009, hitting .310 with five doubles and seven home runs.

Joining them in the left field mix are two converted infielders, Negron and Scott. Negron, a senior who was All-Big South as a second baseman in 2007, has hit over .300 in a season twice during his collegiate career and adds speed to the roster, as he has stolen 20 bases in his two years at Liberty. Scott, like Negron, played on the infield, seeing time at both second and third base last season. The sophomore hit .236 in 27 games in his first year of college baseball, while battling injuries.

Richardson is also in the mix in the outfield. However, the sophomore, who bats from the left side, is likely to see most of his action as the designated hitter, and pinch hitting roles after several big pinch hits for the Flames last season.

In right field, transfer Michael Robertson and Casey Brown are possible options. Robertson, a sophomore, was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 40th round of the MLB Draft last June. He adds speed to the Liberty roster. Brown hit .314 in 42 games after transferring to Liberty from junior college in 2009. The senior could also see some playing time in center field.

Schedule 
Twenty-five contests against teams which won 30 or more games last season and a 27-game Big South Conference slate, highlight the Flames' 2010 schedule.

The Flames will have several new opponents on their non-conference slate this season. Toman's squad will play a three-game series at Kennesaw State, host one of the BIG EAST's top teams, St. John's, in a three-game series, start a home-and-home series with 2009 NCAA participant Elon, and hosts both Maryland from the ACC and Delaware State in a three-game set during the year.

Liberty will open its season with seven road contests, starting in Kennesaw, Ga., against the Kennesaw State Owls on Feb. 19. The contest will be the first of a three-game weekend series with the Owls.

The Flames will continue on the road for their first midweek contest by visiting VCU on Feb. 23, followed by the Hughes Brothers Challenge in Wilmington, N.C., Feb. 26-28. The weekend tournament will pit Liberty against Morehead State, Lehigh and challenge host UNC Wilmington.

Toman's charges begin March with their first home contest of the season, a midweek match-up with VCU on March 2. The game starts an eight-game homestand for the Flames, as Delaware State (March 5-7), Old Dominion (March 9) and St. John's (March 12-14) will also visit during the stretch. Also during the month, Liberty will visit both Duke (March 17) and Virginia Tech (March 23) from the ACC and start its 27-game conference slate by visiting UNC Asheville for a three-game series ( March 26-28).

In April, conference play continues with visits by High Point (Apr. 2-3), VMI (Apr. 17-19) and Gardner-Webb (Apr. 30-May 2). The Flames will travel to Radford (Apr. 9-11) and make their first-ever visit to Presbyterian (Apr. 23-25) in Big South clashes. In nonconference games, Liberty will meet Elon in home-and-home contests (Apr. 13 and 27) and host Duke (Apr. 20).

The Flames close out their 2010 campaign in May with conference visits to Charleston Southern (May 7-9) and Winthrop (May 20-22), while hosting Big South member Coastal Carolina (May 14-16).
Liberty will travel to Rock Hill, S.C., for the 2010 Big South Championship. The Winthrop Ballpark will play host to this year's conference tournament from May 25-29. The Big South Conference champion receives an automatic berth to a NCAA Regional, the following weekend (June 4-7).