Just four times over the past 10 years has a true mid-major college baseball program hosted an NCAA Regional. Liberty University hopes to make that five in a few weeks.
Though Coastal Carolina historically has controlled the Big South Conference, earning three of those four hosts we mentioned in the first paragraph (Connecticut the other), there seems to be a changing of the guard this season, barring a surprisingly poor finish by the Flames. While the Chants are somewhat struggling in Big South play with a 12-9 mark, the Flames have an outstanding 19-1 record. The two teams meet next weekend in Lynchburg, Va., and for the Flames, it'll have far more meaning than in the past.
This day and age in college baseball, the NCAA Division I Selection Committee loves to grant NCAA Regional host sites to new and exciting areas of the country, and to programs, of course, who have made a commitment to winning on the national level. The Flames have all that right now. They've got a fantastic 35-10 overall record, RPI of 22 (with Virginia still left as a midweek contest), and best of all, possess a sparkling, new, facility in Liberty Baseball Stadium, which seats 2,500, with room for more, and includes some amenities not even present at some of the better Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference ballparks.
“That ballpark at Liberty is something else. It's a palace,” one prominent coach recently told me. “There are a lot of people around the country who just assume, okay, Liberty is a small church school lacking money. But for baseball, that university has all the money it needs. There's a reason that ballpark is so nice.”
That beautiful ballpark could soon be playing host to an NCAA Regional. But while even the mere possibility has Liberty baseball players and administrative officials buzzing on social media outlets, including Twitter, head coach Jim Toman, now in his seventh season with the Flames, isn't getting caught too much in the hoopla. However, he understands how the postseason process and RPI works, and with the Flames down three games on the schedule because of weather, he's frantically trying to find high RPI teams who are willing to play a couple of midweek games at some point the rest of the regular season.
“As a coach, the only thing you can be worried about is the next game on the schedule, but I do know we have a great facility and we just have to keep winning. As a mid-major, it's hard to host, and we know if we keep winning, our RPI will stay pretty high,” Toman said. “Your margin for error as a mid-major is very small, so to be honest, unlike what most people would think, we're more nervous about some of our conference games than we are going on the road or something and losing to Clemson. Lose to Clemson on the road and our RPI might go up, but lose a conference game and we might drop several spots.”
While some in the college baseball community might be prone to dismissing Liberty's postseason chances because it's not a household name, doing so would be foolish. The Flames, who finished last season in the Columbia Regional title game against South Carolina, beating Clemson along the way, have an even more intriguing club this spring.
The Flames have an impressive leading hitter in Ryan Seiz, who's hitting .392 with 11 homers and 38 RBIs, and has established himself as one of the nation's elite sluggers. But what makes this team particularly scary is their surprising amount of quality pitching depth not often seen at the mid-major level.
“Our coaching staff has been out there recruiting pretty hard the past few seasons, and we've gotten some really nice arms. They're working hard at it,” Toman said. “I think our facility improvements, culture and things like that, along with beating Clemson in the postseason last year, has really helped us reel in or be attractive to some pitchers.”
Liberty possesses a very good three-man weekend rotation, even without righthanded pitcher Carson Herndon, who will miss the rest of the year after having Tommy John surgery. Senior righthanded pitcher Trey Lambert has been particularly special for the Flames this season. Lambert has a 2.27 ERA in 79 1/3 innings, and is a consistent arm who will sit 88-91 mph with his fastball, touching 92 at times. He also has a true four-pitch mix with a decent curveball, along with a cutter and changeup.
Senior lefthanded pitcher Blake Fulghum has a quality changeup and has tallied a 2.39 ERA in 60 1/3 innings, along with 30 strikeouts and just nine walks, while the most intriguing pitcher down the stretch might just be freshman righthander Parker Bean. Bean, a 6-foot-5, 225-pounder, has a 2.56 ERA along with 64 strikeouts in 63 1/3 innings, and possesses a lot of upside with a fastball up to 93 and a good slider.
“He's going to be a really good one for us,” Toman said. “He's got a pretty good slider, and he's developing his changeup. He's really grown up over the past few weeks.”
Liberty's crop of impressive pitchers doesn't stop there. Heralded prospect and righthanded pitcher Ashton Perritt, who can get up to 95 mph, but has been more 91-93 this season because he's playing both ways, continues to be a force with a 1.50 ERA and 11 saves in 24 innings, while Matt Marsh, Shawn Clowers and Jared Lyons are other high quality arms. Marsh, a righty, has been 88-92 with his fastball, along with a palm ball, while Clowers and Lyons both are 87-89 mph fastball guys with good changeups and breaking balls. None of those pitchers have ERA's over two, with Clowers having the most impressive stat line with an 0.51 ERA in 35 1/3 innings, along with 33 strikeouts and nine walks.
The Flames will be a very difficult out in the NCAA postseason if all those premium arms pitch then how they're pitching now.
Eliminating them from the postseason gets even more difficult if they're at home.
MORE MID-MAJORS TO WATCH
Sure, head coach Ray Birmingham's club had a tough weekend against UNLV, but they're still very much in the mix to reach the NCAA postseason. UNM has a productive offensive lineup, hitting .312, with Chase Harris leading the charge, while the pitching staff is better than the numbers might indicate. For instance, Josh Walker (4.05) and Colton Thomson (4.24) are quality arms that could shine in the postseason. Birmingham will have his team playing the best at the right time.
What an outstanding weekend the Rebels are coming off of, doing a clean sweep of New Mexico in dominant fashion. UNLV is a very dangerous team from a postseason standpoint. In addition to a quality offense with guys like Patrick and Joey Armstrong leading the charge, the weekend rotation is stout with likely high first-round pick and righthanded pitcher Erick Fedde, John Richy and Bryan Bonnell leading the way. Though that showing against Air Force a few weeks ago was disappointing, they seem to be back on track.
Here come the Bulldogs – yet again. Bryant played well in the Manhattan, Kan., Regional last year, and could be in the mix to once again make a move this spring. Bryant's RPI continues to rise, it has an overall record of 31-10, and there are plenty of experienced pieces to this club that were around last season. For instance, starting pitcher Kevin McAvoy is a familiar name and is having another strong campaign, while Vaughn Hayward (1.88) and Craig Schlitter (2.43) are earning good reviews with strong seasons thus far.
SAM HOUSTON STATE:
The Bearkats made a huge impression earlier this season with a strong showing in the Houston College Classic. Though things have changed a bit for SHSU with just a 13-8 Southland Conference record, it's still a very intriguing team to watch with a nice balance of hitters with Anthony Azar leading the way, and a nice crop of arms with righthanded pitcher Tyler Eppler as the headliner. SHSU showed what it's capable of when all the right pieces are together earlier this year. Now we'll see if the Bearkats can return to that with a strong finish, and potentially, an NCAA postseason appearance.
The Rams are another team in the state of Virginia that would be scary if they were to make the NCAA postseason. The Rams don’t have a ton of great pitching depth, but do have some quality starting pitching including JoJo Howie, who has a 3.10 ERA in 72 2/3 innings, while the offense is the most impressive aspect of this club, James Bunn hitting an impressive .345 with 12 RBIs, while Bill Cullen is hitting .309 with 12 doubles, six triples, four homers and 46 RBIs.
There’s no doubt at this point in the season first-year head coach Mitch Hannahs should be the Missouri Valley Coach of the Year. He’s done some impressive things this season, and the Sycamores have a chance to finish the season strong and get into the NCAA postseason. ISU has a high quality weekend rotation with talented David Stagg leading the way with a 2.18 ERA in 74 1/3 innings along with 75 strikeouts. The big key for the Sycamores moving forward is keeping their RPI high enough to earn an at-large bid.
Another Missouri Valley club to watch, coach Mark Kingston has the Redbirds rolling well with a 29-13 overall record. Paul Dejong is a force at the plate with a .377 batting average, eight homers and 41 RBIs, while on the mound, ace starting pitcher Dan Savas is as good as it gets with a 1.57 ERA in 74 1/3 innings, along with 64 strikeouts and 24 walks. Illinois State currently has an RPI of 32 and is within striking distance for the NCAA postseason.
COLLEGE OF CHARLESTON:
The Cougars have accumulated some not-so-great losses so far this season, but still are a very quality club with a chance to do something special at the end of the season. Should the Cougars just get to the postseason, the two-headed monster on the weekend in young pitcher Bailey Ober and Taylor Clarke would be trouble for opposing teams with earned-run averages of 1.27 and 2.18, respectively.
Head coach Dan Heefner is doing another impressive coaching job, and the Patriots would be a tough out in the postseason. DBU has a solid weekend rotation with Cy Sneed (3.52) and Paul Voelker (3.58) leading the charge, while the bullpen is strong with Brandon Koch and Josh Urban the key arms. With Indiana State, Illinois State and DBU in the mix for postseason berths out of the MVC, I’d look for two of those clubs to earn NCAA bids.
It’s a safe bet either the Pirates or St. John’s will win the Big East automatic bid and reach the NCAA postseason. Should the Pirates accomplish that goal, watch out. SHU has an outstanding ace pitcher in Josh Prevost, who has a 1.48 ERA in 85 innings, along with 91 strikeouts and 14 walks, while the offense is stout with a .315 batting average, along with an excellent leading hitter in D.J. Ruhlman, who’s hitting .397 with three homers and 22 RBIs.