Liberty couldn’t have asked for a better start to Friday’s Gainesville Regional opener against Oklahoma. The Flames pounced against Sooners starter Jake Bennett and built an early lead.
That strong opening frame didn't carry over into the second inning, or any subsequent inning for that matter.
Oklahoma took the lead for good with a four-run second inning, pounced for eight runs in the fifth, and ran away for a 16-3 win over the Flames to advance into the regional winner’s bracket at Condron Ballpark in Gainesville, Florida.
The loss drops the Flames (37-22) into an elimination game at 1 p.m. Saturday. They will face Central Michigan after the Chippewas fell 7-3 to host and No. 13 national seed Florida.
“It’s hard to lose like that in the NCAA Tournament,” Liberty coach Scott Jackson said. “We haven’t lost many games like that this year, but we have to get on that bus and put it behind us. Our backs are against the wall, we get that; we’ll get out here tomorrow and see what we can do.”
People are also reading…
Jackson announced left-hander Joe Adametz III will start Saturday’s game. Adametz is tied for the team lead with six victories, the most recent coming in the ASUN Conference tournament semifinals against Eastern Kentucky, and he has been in the weekend rotation the entire season.
“[He’s] been really good for us,” Jackson said, “and I think that hopefully will settle our team in and hopefully we can get off to a good start.”
Liberty lost in its regional opener for the first time under Jackson. The Flames won the Chapel Hill Regional opener in 2019 and secured a win in the 2021 Durham Regional opener on their way to the regional final.
“Honestly, we haven’t been in this position. Usually, we have won the first game of the NCAA Tournament,” Jackson said. “It’s difficult to maybe move past the loss in a big moment but we have older players who understand what we have on the line and understand what is at stake.”
The Sooners (38-20), the Big 12 Conference tournament champion and No. 2 seed in the regional, scored 16 unanswered runs. They scored two or more runs against four of the six Liberty pitchers and hit three home runs.
The third homer capped the eight-run fifth inning on redshirt sophomore Peyton Graham’s grand slam that put Oklahoma ahead 14-3.
John Spikerman went 4 for 5 with four RBIs, highlighted by a solo homer in the second inning that gave Oklahoma a 4-3 lead. Kendall Pettis went 2 for 3 with four runs scored and a two-run homer in the second inning that tied the game at 3.
Wallace Clark went 2 for 5, and Jimmy Crooks went 2 for 4 with two doubles, two runs scored and two RBIs.
“I’ll say this, there are some really good-looking young players in that lineup,” Jackson said of OU. “They have got some freshmen and sophomores that have very mature at-bats. It’s hard to finish them and you saw that today. It’s hard to finish them with two strikes. I told Skip [Johnson, Oklahoma’s coach] that after the game.”
The offensive barrage helped give Bennett (8-3) enough support after a tough first inning. He allowed nine hits and two walks while striking out seven over 5 ⅔ innings.
The southpaw allowed three runs on three hits and a walk in the first inning, but then kept the Flames off the scoreboard whenever they got runners on.
Liberty got off to an ideal start with Gray Betts and Aaron Anderson reaching on a single and a walk, respectively, to lead off the first. Bennett struck out the next two batters and got ahead 0-2 against Stephen Hill.
Hill turned on a fastball and laced it to the left-field wall for a double that scored Betts and Anderson. Logan Mathieu followed three pitches later with a single up the middle that brought in Hill from second for a 3-0 lead.
“It’s tough to get off to a start like that. To jump in it for three in the first inning against a guy [Bennett] who has had a wonderful season. He is their guy. Then we come in and throw up a zero. It was tough after that,” Jackson said.
Liberty starter Dylan Cumming (5-5) worked around two singles for a scoreless first inning, but then the big hits got to him.
Pettis’ two-run homer tied the game and Spikerman followed two pitches later for the go-ahead homer.
Cumming allowed six runs (five earned) on eight hits and struck out three over four innings.
“He did a good job getting to two strikes and we just have to do a better job of finishing their hitters and we didn’t do that today,” Jackson said of Cumming. “Part of that is us but I think a lot of that is Oklahoma as well.”
Jeremy Beamon allowed six earned runs without recording an out. Max Alba, Cole Garrett, Landon Riley and Ty Wilson each threw one inning apiece to keep the bullpen available for the elimination game.
Mathieu went 2 for 4 and was the only player in the LU lineup with multiple hits.