Liberty baseball remains atop conference standings with series victory over Jax State

The Flames got to stay home over the weekend as they hosted the Jacksonville State Gamecocks for a Conference USA weekend series. The Flames entered the series at 15-17 on the season and 7-2 in CUSA play. 

The series got off to a solid start for the conference-leading Flames, with ace junior pitcher Cole Hertzler commanding the season opener with a career-high 10 strikeouts. Multiple Flames recorded multihit games, with sophomore outfielder Brayden Horton extending his hit streak to 11 games and helping propel Liberty to a 7-2 win. 

Game two, however, saw the Gamecocks fight back in a high-powered contest. Junior Nick Moran was on the mound for the Flames on Saturday, and his day started off on the right note. In the first inning, Moran struck out one as the Gamecocks’ first three batters went down in order, bringing the Flames to the plate. Sophomore center fielder Kane Kepley kicked off what would be a big inning for the Flames with a leadoff single to left field. Freshman shortstop Tanner Marsh quickly joined Kepley on base with a double that flew to the wall in right-center field. 

The Flames were able to capitalize with runners in scoring position when freshman catcher Macaddin Dye laced an RBI double into left field, scoring both Kepley and Marsh. Senior second baseman Aidan Sweatt would then move Dye to third with a single. Dye would later score off of junior third baseman Cam Foster’s RBI double. The first inning finally came to an end with the Flames boasting a 3-0 lead.

“It should have been at least four,” Liberty Head Coach Scott Jackson said after the game. “We were able to get three, but we did leave two out there on second and third with one out.” 

Jackson said he and the team had a lot of respect for the Gamecocks’ sophomore pitcher Jackson Sleeper and his slider. Sleeper went five innings while giving up three runs to the Flames. 

Junior pitcher Cole Hertzler | Photo by Kendall Tidwell

The second inning was a quick one, with Moran putting down the next three batters from Jacksonville State. 

“(Moran) deserves success, so it’s great to see him have it,” Jackson said. “He fills up the zone, he’s competitive and he’s grown for us in a lot of ways. He’s had trouble staying healthy, but I have enjoyed watching him pitch. He is a great personality.”

Moran lasted for 6 1/3 innings, giving up three runs and striking out two. 

The third inning would see some drama when Gamecock freshman second baseman Sam Silas laid down a bunt that trickled down the first baseline. The Flames attempted to make a play but could not get the routine out at first. However, Silas was called out. After review, the call stood. The Gamecocks, frustrated with the call, used it as motivation and rattled off two runs in the third to make the game close, 3-2.

The next three innings came and went without any scoring. The Flames had to make a couple of pitching changes in the top of the seventh, as the Gamecocks were able to draw a bases-loaded walk to tie the ballgame at 3 apiece. The tie would not last for long, as Marsh launched his third home run of the year over the left field bullpen to give the Flames a 4-3 advantage. Marsh finished the day with two hits — his second consecutive multihit game. 

The eighth inning was a solid one for the Flames defense, as sophomore pitcher Talor Grubbs rung up two of his three strikeouts to keep the Flames in front. Grubbs now has 17 strikeouts in his 11 appearances this season.

Freshman shortstop Tanner Marsh | Photo by Kendall Tidwell

Unfortunately for the Flames, things fell apart in the ninth inning. The Gamecocks scored immediately with junior third baseman Brennen Norton hitting a solo home run to right field, tying the game at four runs apiece. Pitching was inconsistent for the Flames in the ninth, as the damage only got worse. Two more runs were scored by Jacksonville State as the Flames entered the bottom of the ninth trailing 4-6.

A ray of hope broke through for the Flames as Kepley hit his sixth home run of the year to right field to cut the deficit to one. A pitching change following the home run was enough for the Gamecocks, as their defense sealed the game, completing the 6-5 comeback. 

Despite the disappointing setback on Saturday, the Flames still managed to take the series with a 12-6 win on Sunday. Infielders John Simmons and Sweatt were big components of the closing victory, both notching two hits in the game, with Simmons’ second coming in the form of a triple that brought home two runs in the fifth. Jax State’s first baseman Derrick Jackson launched two balls over the fence of Worthington Field, but his efforts fell short, with Flames junior reliever Garrett McLaughlin maintaining control over the game through the final 4 1/3 innings to send Jax State home with a series loss.   

Liberty’s record sits at 17-18 overall. The Flames’ 9-3 record in conference play keeps them at the top of CUSA, with their next conference series coming this weekend against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in Bowling Green, Kentucky. 

Weissinger is a sports reporter for the Liberty Champion. Follow him on X

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