Scott Jackson was certain Saturday wasn’t going to be the last time his Liberty baseball program was going to take the field in the 2021 season. After their showing against Jacksonville in the ASUN Conference championship, the Flames’ fate rests in the hands of the Division I selection committee.
Liberty, the ASUN Conference regular-season champion, surrendered five runs in the seventh inning, and Jacksonville completed its improbable run through the ASUN tournament by claiming a 7-3 victory in Saturday’s championship game held at North Florida’s Harmon Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida.
The Dolphins (16-32) secured the league’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. JU won only one game in April, but put together a sizzling ASUN tournament. It knocked out the South Division’s No. 1 seed, FGCU, in a best-of-three quarterfinal series, and then went 3-0 in the championship round with two wins over Liberty and a triumph over North Florida.
“They’ve gone on this run and it’s really incredible what they’ve done when you step back and look at it,” Jackson said of JU in a postgame radio interview. “They’ve gotten hot.”
The Flames (39-14) now wait until noon Monday when the selection show is broadcast on ESPN2. They hope to receive one of the 34 at-large bids into the 64-team field.
“Liberty is as good of a team as we’ve faced this year,” Jacksonville coach Chris Hayes said in a postgame television interview. “ … Hopefully the national committee sees that and rewards Liberty with a chance to play next weekend.”
Liberty entered Saturday’s slate of games ranked 30th in RPI and had the nation’s 10th toughest nonconference schedule.
The Flames posted three victories over VCU, the Atlantic 10’s regular-season champion; two wins over North Carolina; and a win apiece over Wake Forest, Virginia and Virginia Tech. They also swept a series over UCF, which advanced to the American Athletic Conference semifinals.
“I’m 100% expecting to be there next weekend,” Jackson said of playing in a regional. “If you just look at the body of the work and the things that we’ve done. We had two series that we lost all year — they were the first two [on the road against Campbell and TCU] — and we haven’t lost one since. We’ve done some remarkable things.
“If they look at the body of work, which I think they will from start to finish, our kids should be rewarded for that. I think we’re one of the best 25, 30 teams in the country. I feel very confident the committee will look at it that way and reward us for what we’ve done.”
Jacksonville took the lead for good Saturday on Mike Cassala’s two-run homer in the bottom of the first inning. That gave the Dolphins a 2-1 advantage after Liberty went ahead 1-0 in the top of the inning when Will Wagner reached on a fielder’s choice to score Gray Betts.
Jacksonville starter Mason Adams and Liberty reliever David Erickson combined to keep the score at 2-1 heading into the seventh.
Adams allowed the one run on five hits, walked three and struck out seven in 6 2/3 innings.
“I thought his changeup was really, really good. We knew that coming in,” Jackson said of Adams. “ … He pitched ahead in the count, he did a great job. When he got behind, he made great pitches.”
Erickson, who entered with two on and one out in the second, loaded the bases with a walk. Logan Mathieu helped keep the Flames’ deficit at one run by turning an unassisted double play at first base.
Jacksonville struck in the seventh with two outs. The Dolphins took advantage of four hits, one walk and one error to score four times against Fraser Ellard, and then capitalized on Lincoln Riley’s wild pitch to go ahead 7-1.
“We’ve got to be better, we’ve got to be better in those moments,” Jackson said. “No excuses on our behalf, that’s for sure.”
The Flames loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth against Tyler Naumann, but he struck out Brady Gulakowski and Cam Locklear before getting a force out at second base to escape the jam.
Liberty again loaded the bases in the ninth against Naumann, which forced Hayes to turn to Tyler Santana out of the bullpen. Santana, the tournament MVP, was pitching on one day’s rest after throwing 116 pitches over eight innings in Thursday’s 2-1 victory over the Flames.
Santana opened his Saturday appearance by hitting Aaron Anderson to force in Garrett Wilkinson, cutting the deficit to five runs. Will Wagner dropped a single into center field to drive in Brandon Rohrer to cut the deficit to four runs.
The Flames had three chances against Santana with the tying run at the plate but couldn’t push across another run. Trey McDyre struck out looking to end an eight-pitch at-bat for the first out of the inning, and then Gulakowski struck out swinging for the second out.
Locklear, one of four Liberty players named to the all-tournament team, grounded out to shortstop to end the game.
Trevor DeLaite, Jaylen Guy and Jake Wilson joined Locklear on the all-tournament team.
“I know last inning there, that’s frustrating, too. We have our opportunities there with the bases loaded and nobody out and the tying run at the plate,” Jackson said. We’ve got work to do here and have a shot to play next weekend.”