One of the best seasons in Liberty baseball history came to an end Sunday night in the Knoxville regional final as the Flames fell to No. 3 Tennessee, 3-1. The Flames season comes to an end with an overall record of 41-16 as Liberty advanced to the regional final for the second time in school history.
“I was impressed with Tennessee, with the way they pitched the baseball,” Liberty head coach Scott Jackson said. “Big swing of the bat by Gilbert and that was the difference tonight. I thought we competed about as well as we could in this environment, especially on the mound. I enjoyed watching our players compete at this level and on this stage. Like I said, I’m tickled to death to be their coach. I’m proud to be their coach.”
The Flames kept it close by utilizing a bullpen by committee approach. Fraser Ellard made his first start of the season, his first year with the Flames, and he provided head coach Scott Jackson and Liberty with five innings of nearly flawless baseball. Through 4.2 innings, he had allowed just one run on five hits, but his night didn’t end there. Drew Gilbert provided the necessary insurance for the Volunteers as he blasted a pitch well beyond the right field wall, giving Tennessee a 3-0 lead through five innings.
“I thought Gilbert didn’t have as good of swings on him the previous look,” Jackson said of leaving Ellard in the game. “It’s a pitch that he left up. I’m sure he’d love to have it back, but at the same time I’m going to go down fighting with Fraser Ellard any day of the week, and I’m not going to look back on that one and regret. I don’t think he was tired. The velo was there. There was some 94-95 in the middle of the game. He made one bad pitch. As frustrating as it is, I’m proud of Fraser and the effort that he gave us in his first start of the season.”
Ellard threw 26 pitches and recorded four outs in Liberty’s win Friday against Duke, and provided another great outing just two days later that kept the Flames in contention. Mason Fluharty and David Erickson combined to pitch three scoreless innings in relief.
“He came out of there attacking,” Jackson said of Ellard’s start. “It was a good starter look. We haven’t seen him in that role except maybe in a scrimmage, it was very limited. For him to give us that kind of start here as he finishes his career at Liberty, I’m so proud of him just to be able to have that moment, and I know that was something he wanted to do when he got to Liberty. He was selfless enough to go to the back end of the bullpen for us, embrace that role, and put our team in a situation where we have a chance to go to the postseason with a bona-fide closer at the end of the season. There’s not many teams that can say that. For him to be able to do that and give us a start, 92 pitches, and to land sliders against an unbelievable Tennessee lineup, I’m proud of him, that’s for sure.”
Liberty scored their lone run in the sixth inning, but had opportunities in that frame to provide further damage. Aaron Anderson led off the inning and was hit by pitch, followed by a Will Wagner double as the Flames had runners on second and third with no outs. Trey McDyre reached on an infield single and Anderson scored from third with heads up base running, but that was all the damage Liberty could muster in the inning as Brady Gulakowski, Cam Locklear, and Jake Wilson all struck out. The Flames were 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position in the game.
Advancing to the regional final, Liberty was one of the final 32 teams in Division I baseball left playing. The Flames also reached the regional final in 2013 when they beat Clemson twice in the Columbia Regional before falling to South Carolina, 6-4.
“The way I’ll sum up this season is, we left TCU 2-5,” Jackson said. “We lost three in a row and we were getting ready to head to UCF and they had just won a series at Ole Miss. We were sitting there with our backs against the wall. It was a moment for our team where I told them they had to go down there to UCF and prove it to themselves that they could win on the road, they could beat high caliber opponents. From there, our kids ran with it. We have not lost back to back games sine we left Fort Worth. If that doesn’t tell you what you need to know about our team, I don’t think anything else does.”
“Tough day. It’s a tough day to see your season end, but I’m proud of our players and the way that they represented Liberty, our program and our university,” said Jackson. “Our university is special. I couldn’t be more proud to be the head coach there. Guys like Trey McDyre changed our program and have taken our program to another level. I’m excited for what the future holds for us. Tough day for us, but our program will be back here, I can promise you that.”