As we start to near the return of warmer weather in central Virginia, the Liberty Flames baseball team prepares to begin their season with high hopes for what should be a competitive season throughout.
Coming off an upset defeat as the one-seed in the ASUN championship against Kennesaw State, the Flames will be looking to reclaim their title atop the conference and make their presence felt on the diamond and once again return to a regional.
The Flames are scheduled for several games against non-conference opponents who have been highly touted nationally in the rankings in the months leading up to opening day. There are five matchups that jump off the schedule and will be critical games when we look back on the history of the 2023 Liberty baseball team.
First off we have a big interstate rival that the Flames will get to play twice this season, both at home and away. Liberty played a lone matchup last season against UVA in Charlottesville and left with a tough 2-7 loss. Obviously an important in-state matchup for Liberty, going against the state college always feels like a big game, especially given their success in the sport.
UVA is currently ranked 19th in D1baseball.com’s top 25 rankings going into the season, giving even more weight to a potential Flames win if they maintain ranked success into the season. Two guys to look out for are the catcher and third baseman for the Cavaliers, Kyle Teel and Jake Gelof. MLB’s top 100 draft ranking for 2023 currently has Teel at 28 and Gelof at 38.
Teel is a lefty hitter who has been a top 100 draft prospect since he was in high school, yet deciding to honor his commitment to UVA and play there. He has the ability to put the ball in play or hit for power. Gelof is more of a power hitter, hitting 21 homers in 2022. Though he swings big, he gets on base efficiently and with his eye for pitches.
Liberty plays the Cavaliers on April 4th at home and April 25th in Charlottesville.
The Flames open up the season with an away series against Southern Miss, a team currently ranked 18th in the NCAA rankings after closing out the year at 15th last year. LU has only faced up against this team once back in March 2008 where the Golden Eagles came out on top 5-0. This year they hope to keep the streak going, with RHP Tanner Hall likely playing in one of the games in the series.
Hall is ranked 89th in the top 100 draft prospects this year and while he doesn’t have the hottest fastball, he produces results. He was 3rd in D1 baseball in K/BB with 10.4 last season and 4th in total strikeouts with 149 across 109 innings. He has great control and gets plenty of hitters with his changeup while sprinkling sliders across his time on the mound. It should be interesting to see how the Flames’ lineup can challenge him at the plate.
Liberty plays Southern Miss in their series February 17-19 in Hattiesburg.
Another in-state rival, VT comes in at 14th on the preseason rankings after ending in the 11 spot at the conclusion of the 2022 season. The Flames matched up twice against the Hokies last season, going 0-2 with a 6-10 loss at home and a 1-2 loss in Blacksburg.
A guy to keep an eye on for Virginia Tech is outfielder Jack Hurley. An effective all-around offensive player, he hit double digit home runs and stolen bases last season and can be a guy who hits it across the diamond. He has the arm and the speed to be a real hawk at center field and really move to get difficult balls. Tech had 5 guys go in the first 5 rounds of last year’s draft so they might take some time to adjust to less experienced players getting more playing time, but the squad is still a formidable rival that will be a big win if Liberty can gain the upper hand in their two matchups this upcoming season.
Liberty plays the Hokies on April 11th in Blacksburg and May 10th in Lynchburg.
Next we have ECU, currently ranked 11th in the NCAA rankings after finishing 13th last season. Liberty is 4-5 in the teams’ matchup history, most recently an 11-0 loss in March 2020 at Greenville. Some notable returning players are AAC pitcher of the year Carter Spivey and freshman All-American outfielder Jacob Jenkins-Cowart. Spivey went 8-0 with a 2.83 ERA in 35 appearances last season while JJC hit 13 home runs with a .330 batting average in his first year as a college athlete.
The Flames will play a 3 game series against the Pirates starting on March 10th in Greenville.
Wake Forest, currently ranked 6th in the nation is 11-7 against Liberty in their history of playing one another. The two teams played twice last season, with Wake Forest taking both games in a 6-13 decision in Lynchburg and a 5-10 Liberty loss in North Carolina.
The Demon Deacons have some real studs on their roster in the form of RHP Rhett Lowder, third baseman Brock Wilken, and RHP Teddy McGraw. Lowder, ranked 14th in the top 100 prospects, was named ACC pitcher of the year and pitched for the USA Collegiate National Team. He is known to have one of the best changeups in baseball along with a max fastball of 97 mph.
Wilken, ranked 25th in the top 100, is a big bodied infielder who hits with real power, setting the Wake Forest freshman record for home runs in a season with 17 his first year. Last year he followed up this performance with 23 home runs on the season along with showing off his arm at third base over the course of the year. McGraw, 42nd in the rankings, has a slick 98 mph fastball with arguable his best pitch being his slider the stumbles hitters repeatedly.
The Deacons are an extremely talented team that will take some of Liberty’s best performances to topple. Liberty plays Wake FOrest on March 14th in Lynchburg and April 19th in Winston-Salem.