Baseball is back.
The #FlameTrain starts rolling this weekend with a three game series in Charleston, S.C, but more on that later.
For the first time in 9 seasons the Flames have a new skipper at the helm. Scott Jackson, who was the pitching coach for the Flames under Toman in 2008, takes the helm after 5 years as an assistant coach at UNC. He played his college baseball at Campbell, who is a current Big South Conference member. Jackson brings a wealth of experience with him and has worked with the likes of current MLBer’s Matt Harvey and Dustin Ackley to name a few.
The 2017 edition of the Flames returns a veteran nucleus who produced most of its offense in 2016. The Flames return 2016 Big South Freshman of the year D.J. Artis, who led the team in batting average, hits, runs scored, and OBP. Liberty also returns its 2016 home run leader Will Shepherd (8) and RBI leader Andrew Yacyk (49).
Along with those notable returners, Liberty will start the season with a left side of the infield with zero collegiate experience. Freshman Ben Highfill will start at third and freshman Cam Locklear at short. Former shortstop Dalton Britt left a huge hole to fill for Locklear as Britt was the epitome of consistency at short for the Flames over the last 4 years.
Liberty was picked to finish 3rd in the Big South’s preseason poll behind Campbell and High Point. With defending national champions, Coastal Carolina (I gagged a little while typing that), out of the picture this year the Flames should contend for a conference championship.
The Biggest Question Mark:
Finding the strike zone was a huge issue for the Flames pitching staff last season. Liberty’s offense is good enough to win a lot of games this year, but not if the pitching staff can’t cut down on the walks.
Rumor has it that Jack DeGroat will be closing games this season and has been hitting 95 on the radar gun consistently this offseason. Scott Jackson admitted in a Flames Sports Hotline interview this week that he thinks DeGroat will hit double digit saves out of the pen. If the Flames can get the ball in his hands with a lead they should be in good shape.
While we aren’t sure as to exactly what the starting line up will look link come Friday against UVA, here is how we think each position will shake out:
CF – So. D.J. Artis
There’s no doubt that opposing teams will have a close eye on Artis as he can beat you in so many ways. He led the team in just about every offensive statistic in 2016 and according to coach Jackson has been hitting for power in the offseason. Its a good bet that Artis doesn’t get quite as many pitches to hit as he did last year, but he should still finish the season as one of the top offensive performers in the conference.
C – Sr. Payton Scarborough/Sr. Josh Latta/ Jr. Matt Allan
Coach Jackson has mentioned all three of these guys getting large amounts of playing time this season. We should see them all get the chance to show how well they can manage the pitching staff opening weekend.
1B – Sr. Sammy Taormina
Taormina is a break out player of the year candidate and should play a large part in the Flames offensive output this year.
2B – So. Dylan Allen/ Sr. Eric Grabowski/ Sr. Andrew Kuwalo
Another one of the positions that will see a lot of veteran guys getting some action.
3B – Fr. Ben Highfill
Coach Jackson has had some high praise for Highfill at 3B saying that he gets the ball out of his hands quicker than anyone he’s coached before in an interview on the Flames Sports Hotline. He should be fun to watch at the hot corner.
SS – Fr. Cam Locklear
Replaces four year starter Dalton Britt. He should have some growing pains but look for Locklear to be a staple of the left side of the infield for years to come.
RF – Sr. Will Shepherd
Shepherd led the team in homers in 2016 and will likely do it again in 2017.
LF – So. Jack Morris
The Left field position should see a lot of action as there are a number of guys who can play multiple outfield positions. Look for Artis, Morris, and Yacyk to see a lot of time out there.
DH – Sr. Andrew Yacyk
Andrew has tons of power and led the team in RBI’s in 2016. He should see time in the outfield as well as the DH.
On The Mound:
Returners Caleb Evan and Evan Mitchell should once again compete for weekend starter status. Shane Quarterly and Jack DeGroat will lock down the last few innings of most games. Beyond that are a lot of questions marks as noted above. Coach Jackson has emphasized defensive fundamentals during the offseason which should instill some trust behind the pitching staff. They don’t have to go into each appearance looking to strike out the side.
With its mix of veteran leadership and inexperienced guys, this will be a fun team to watch. They have plenty of potential and a championship run is within its reach.
The Flames open this season with some good tests that should tell us quite a bit about where this team is. They play top 20 ranked UVA at 12pm Friday, Kansas at 11am Saturday, and wrap up the weekend with tournament host The Citadel at 2pm on Sunday all at Riley Park in Charleston S.C.
Probable staters for this weekend:
UVA – RHP Eric Grabowski
Kansas – RHP Caleb Evans
Citadel – RHP Jackson Bertsch
Follow us on twitter at @aseaofread and @Evan_Taylor for in game updates all weekend long.