*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a new story series throughout the spring and summer called "Maroon Moments", which will highlight some of the top performances and most pivotal contests from the last two years across all Maroon athletic teams.
CHICAGO – Once spring break of the 2019 season arrived, the University of Chicago baseball team headed down to Texas to take on a few of the top NCAA Division III teams in the nation. One particular opponent loomed large on the schedule – No. 1-ranked Trinity University (Texas).
"You are always curious how a team will respond to a challenge," said UChicago Head Coach John Fitzgerald. "It is really easy to 'talk a big game' in the gym during the winter. However, one of the reasons we schedule teams like Trinity on our trip is for our guys to truly compete against programs that have had continued success on the national stage."
The Maroons proved they were equal to the task, as the visitors upset the top-ranked Tigers with a dramatic 4-3 win in extra innings on March 25, 2019.
Heading into the contest, UChicago had just concluded a three-game series at Schreiner University. The Trinity game would be the team's fourth in three days, with No. 8-ranked Texas Lutheran University on the docket the very next evening.
In an effort to not overtax his pitching staff, Fitzgerald decided he would put two of his most reliable senior arms to the test in San Antonio. Jacob Petersen would get the start on the mound, with Joe Liberman ready in relief when called upon.
Runs were at a premium as both teams effectively limited the scoring opportunities for the offenses. While the two sides combined for 17 hits, none went for extra bases. Trinity grabbed the early edge to go up 2-0 through two innings. Then in the top of the fourth, UChicago responded with a two-run single to left courtesy of senior outfielder Josh Parks.
The Tigers drew ahead once more 3-2 in the fifth, plating one on a wild pitch. After his five innings of work, Petersen was relieved on the mound by Liberman. For the next three-and-a-half innings, the scoreboard was only populated by zeros on each side.
"Both Petersen and Liberman were seniors who were not only mature beyond their years, but two pitchers who would compete at all times," Fitzgerald said. "Jacob was able to keep them off balance and our defense really did a solid job to keep the game close. Liberman entered the game in the sixth inning and just dominated. His fastball/slider combination was phenomenal and he seemed to get stronger as the game and the pressure of the game progressed."
For Liberman, 2019 was a return to the form he flashed during his phenomenal rookie campaign. The Deerfield, Ill. native began his collegiate career in 2016 by going 4-2 with a 1.99 ERA – the fourth-best single-season ERA in program history. But various injuries during his sophomore and junior years proved troublesome. However, Liberman's bounce-back senior season proved to be his best yet, and his dominance against Trinity showcased all his abilities.
"He worked harder than anyone I have ever coached to get back to his first-year form," said Fitzgerald. "He was the first in the gym and the last to leave all winter. I think that the Trinity game was when Joe really announced that he was back. It was our fourth game in three days, so we didn't really have any type of script going into the game. Because his stuff was so dominant, there was really no reason to consider making a switch on the mound because he showed no signs of fatigue. I also selfishly enjoyed watching the young man see all of his hard work paying off in a such a dramatic way on the mound."
Liberman silenced Trinity's potent bats the rest of the game. The right-hander threw the final five innings, striking out seven and only allowing one hit.
It was now up to the Maroon hitters to answer the call. Still trailing in the top of the ninth inning, UChicago drew a leadoff walk and immediately sacrifice bunted the runner to second base. Then senior outfielder Connor Hickey delivered the game-tying RBI single to force extra innings.
The 10th inning followed a similar script – a leadoff single, followed by another sacrifice bunt. With two outs, first-year infielder Benjamin Rosengard plated the go-ahead run by drilling a single up the middle. Then it was time for Liberman to close out the victory. The senior righty induced a groundout, made a sliding catch in foul territory and then struck out the final batter swinging.
"Watching our guys fight back to tie it after an early deficit and really believe that they belonged on the field was a true indication of how far this program has grown in recent years," Fitzgerald said. "I think the biggest moment was when Max Brzostowski was called upon to pinch hit in the top of the 10th inning after a leadoff single by Ian Bohn. Max, who excels at the short game, rose to the occasion and got the sacrifice bunt down which moved Bohn into scoring position."
By season's end, the Maroons accumulated a 24-12 record, won the Midwest Conference North Division and participated in the MWC Championship. Liberman concluded his senior year with a 6-0 record, 2.08 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 39 innings pitched.
"It was fun to watch the guys realize that we can accomplish a ton on the baseball field," said Fitzgerald. "In late March, a win like that could be a meaningless win or something that has the ability to propel your team. … I do however believe that regardless of the strength of schedule or a team's ability to compete, teams also need to learn how to win and even more specifically do so in comeback fashion. From that standpoint, I believe that it proved to be immensely beneficial in proving that we are good enough to fight back in games and more importantly, compete with anyone we play."