Liberty baseball is set to begin its inaugural season in the Atlantic Sun coming off a 32-26 2018 season in the Big South.
“I think the big thing is to stay healthy here down the stretch. We’ve got a little over a week left, and just trying to shore some things up with our rotation. . . I think we know who we want to start,” Jackson said in a Feb. 4 interview. “The order might be the most critical thing for us at this point, but yeah; I’m excited. It’s a great group of kids.”
Liberty’s rotation will be piloted by sophomore right-hander Noah Skirrow and junior college transfer Andrew McInvale heading into the opening weekend at South Carolina. The Flames and Gamecocks begin a 3-game series Friday at 4pm in Columbia, South Carolina followed by a quick turnaround for the team’s home-opener next Tuesday against Wake Forest.
Skirrow posted a 4-3 record with a 4.57 ERA over 67 innings pitched last season. McInvale, a redshirt junior, posted a 4.32 ERA in 37 innings pitched at Howard College in 2018. The rotation is rounded out by JUCO transfer Mason Myer and two freshmen in Joseph Adametz and David Erickson.
“We’ve got 5 guys that I feel comfortable starting the game for us,” said Jackson. “How that fits on Sunday and Tuesday, that’s probably up in the air right now, but I feel pretty comfortable with McInvale and Skirrow being in there. It’s a similar look if you go McInvale, Skirrow, and (David) Erickson, I think that’s a similar look for a team on the weekend – very firm with a mostly fastball, slider look. I’d love to have a lefty in there to sandwich between two of those righty’s.”
Beyond those 5, Garret Price and Evan Brabrand will anchor Jackson’s bullpen.
Another challenge facing Liberty will be replacing all-Big South performers D.J. Artis and Tre Todd. The two paced the Flames’ offense last year with a combined .304 average and 126 hits. Liberty will look to a combination of returning and new players to fill out its lineup card.
Jackson said he’s nailed down the Flames’ 1-4 hitters. Redshirt junior Jon Embry will bat leadoff, followed by sophomore outfielder Brandon Rohrer. Infielder Tyler Galazin, who hit .286 last season, will bat third and 6’3, 225 lb. first baseman/designated hitter Logan Mathieu will bat cleanup.
The second half of the lineup remains undetermined. Jackson said he has a general idea of who could step in, but a specific order has yet to be finalized. Names mentioned by Jackson include shortstop Cam Locklear, second baseman Will Wagner (whom Jackson called the most improved on the roster), freshman catcher/first baseman Drew Baughman, infielder Ben Highfill, and freshman centerfielder Jaylen Guy. Guy has a similar skil-set to Artis and will start the season batting in the 8 or 9 hole. Locklear started 57 games last season.
Last year, the ASUN was no. 7 in the nation in conference RPI. Competing in the conference, which features perenneal powerhouse Stetson, will pose new challenges to the Flames. Liberty will also have to adjust to a more rigorous road schedule, as all Big South schools are either in the Carolinas or Virginia. The Flames will travel to Florida several times in 2019 in addition to treks to Alabama and Georgia.
“For me, the most challenging part might be the travel,” Jackson noted. “We used to get home and have dinner with our families on Sundays in the Big South and the kids had a chance to get some schoolwork done. And now, I’m gonna have to keep an eye on managing the off-day, and kind of keeping a pretty good pulse of how our guys feel and when and when not to get on the field.”
Liberty also faces a demanding non-conference schedule. In addition to South Carolina, the Flames will play Duke, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
“The challenging part for us is a good thing because it makes you bring your best every time out,” Jackson said of his squad’s schedule. “It just kind of creates that culture of, ‘there’s not gonna be any opportunity for us to not play our best version of Liberty baseball and have a chance to win.”
The change in schedule, however, hasn’t changed the team’s expectation to win.
“There’s no warm-up, there’s no nothing,” Jackson quipped. “We’re going down there to win the series in South Carolina, and I think our guys know that and feel that.”