Falcon baseball season kicks off this weekend in Cleburne, Texas with a three games series against Army in the first year of the Liberty Classic. The event was organized by Rick Wright, a graduate of the Air Force Academy to honor servicemen, veterans, health care workers, first responders, coaches, and teachers. An explanation of the festivities can be found here.
Air Force and Army have only been facing off on the baseball diamond since 2015, and the Falcons have dominated the series, winning 8 of the 11 games played, and the last 5 in a row. That’s not to say that Army has an unsuccessful program. The Black Knights have advanced to the NCAA Regionals out of the Patriot League in each of the last 4 full seasons.
Last year’s game between the teams was a pitching duel until the 6th inning when Chase Spencer’s grand slam gave the Falcons all they needed for the 4-3 win. Doyle Gehring, who started the season as the closer, got the save with 2 2⁄3 innings of shutout relief.
Scouting the Black Knights
There are some interesting similarities between Army’s and Air Force’s rosters. Both teams will be playing this season without their star pitchers from last year due to transfers. Paul Skenes has moved on to finish his college career at LSU. Army will be without Connelly Early due to his transfer to Virginia. Early was 7-4 last year with an ERA of 3.26, and was named Patriot League Pitcher of the Year.
At the corners in the infield, both teams have outstanding preseason all-conference players, Sam Kulasingam (.411 BA, 12 HR and 64 RBI) and Jay Thomason (.348 BA, 16 HR and 53 RBI) are matched against Sam Ruta (.390 BA, 7 HR and 36 RBI) and Ross Friedrick (.340 BA, 6HR and 49 RBI).
On the other hand, the styles of the teams are quite different. Army offensively is more of a “small ball” team. They hit only 32 home runs last year to Air Force’s 95. Army hits the ball well with a team batting average of .299 and utilizes their speed on the basepaths with 102 stolen bases. That’s in contrast to the Falcons batting average of .312 with 40 steals. These tendencies were reflected in the result of last year’s game between the teams. Army got their three runs on an error and two groundouts, and the Falcons had the grand slam homer for the win.
It’s too difficult at this point to determine which pitching staff might be more effective. Last year, Army’s ERA was 4.75 and the Falcons ERA was 6.52, but the higher altitude in Colorado Springs and the fast infield at Falcon Stadium create a tough environment for pitchers. Also, I think most fans would agree that the Mountain West is probably the more talented baseball conference as a whole, having produced talent such as Aaron Judge, Stephen Strasburg, and Griffin Jax. I will say that Army had some impressive performances by some young pitchers last year that are returning this year.
The overall talent level between the teams seem to be pretty well balanced. When equal talent levels are the case, the strongest pitching performances usually determine the outcome. I’m optimistic about the Falcon rotation of Gehring, Rogers and Shim, and I think Gehring is the best pitcher on either team. I think the Falcons can take the series 2-1.