Coming off two straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including the program’s first ever at-large bid in 2014, the Flames will begin this season with their first ever top 25 preseason ranking (Baseball America). Though it’s nice to see the program getting national respect, senior captain Alex Close explained the challenges that will come with that respect. “I don’t think it will be like in years past where maybe Coastal has had the target on their back,” Close told us last week. “I think it will [change how teams approach us]. Every game, guys will throw everything they have at us to beat us.”
Close, the Big South Freshman of the Year in 2012, was named Big South Preseason Player of the Year after opting to come back for his senior season. He, along with Ashton Perritt, were drafted in the 2014 Major League Draft but turned down offers in order to return for their senior seasons. “It’s cool to be a leader, but no one person can win any games for a baseball team. You have to have 35 guys going in the right direction.”
With that in mind we’ll be looking at what the Liberty lineup will most likely look like in 2015.
Key losses (2014 stats):
2b Ryan Seiz (drafted 17th round)- .351 AVG, 593 SLG%, 12 HRs, 2014 Big South Player of the Year
C Danny Grauer- .440 SLG%, first team all Big South.
OF Nick Lacik- .287 AVG.
P Trey Lambert – 2.23 ERA in 109 innings pitched, 11-3 record, 2014 Big South Pitcher of the Year.
P Matt Marsh- Team best .46 ERA.
P Blake Fulgham- 3.16 ERA.
Usual Starters: Nick Paxton, Will Shephard, Ashton Perritt.
Liberty will highlight a very formidable outfield in 2015 with the emergence of Will Shepherd (.273 AVG) last season, and the returning of Nick Paxton after a freak injury sidelined him for all of 2014. Paxton completes the outfield in the wake of losing Nick Lacik, and will provide an upgrade in fielding to DH Andrew Yacyk (who will probably see the outfield when Perritt is on the mound). Expect to see Paxton, Shephard, and Perritt anchoring the top half of the Flames’ batting order.
Usual Starters: C Becker Sankey, 1b Alex Close, 2b Clay Keranen, 3b Dylan Allen, SS: Dalton Britt
The Flames infield will be headlined by all-Big South selections, Dalton Britt and Alex Close. These two upperclassmen will be leading a largely inexperienced infield.
-Though we’ve seen Becker Sankey’s bat in the past, it is still to be seen what he can do behind the plate.
-Clay Keranen has been heralded as an outstanding fielder. He had some problems with errors in his limited playing time last season, but expect him to clean those up as he gets more comfortable as a usual starter.
-Dalton Britt may be the best fielder on the team. Though his fielding percentage dropped to .950 last year, his range is incredible.
-Dylan Allen is one of two players that coach Toman mentioned making great strides in the offseason (the other being Nick Paxton). If Allen can improve on his .258 batting average from last year, the bottom of Liberty’s lineup will be almost as scary as the top.
Weekend Rotation: Ashton Perritt, Shawn Clowers, Parker Bean.
After losing some key arms to graduation, Liberty will probably not be able to exert the same level of dominance on the mound as last year. Though Perritt and Clowers were both phenomenal in relief roles last year, it will be important for them to maintain their effectiveness while also pitching with endurance as starters this season.
Pitching coach, Garrett Quinn, will have some nice arms to work with, but Liberty lacks the depth that it had for the midweek contests in 2014. Liberty’s primary relievers will be Jared Lyons, Alex Close (who has not touched the mound since his freshman season), and newly named captain Matt Pennington. It is no secret that the Flames will need some new arms to emerge if they expect to contend with the bullpens they would be matched with in the NCAA tournament.
Another interesting development will be if Carson Herndon, who underwent Tommy John surgery, is included on Liberty’s 35 man roster. Herndon would be a huge addition to Liberty’s pitching staff, and may even be the best starting pitcher on the team. Coach Toman told us that if he does play this season, we would likely not see him until April. Perhaps Herndon will be the key addition that spurs the Flames to a postseason run.