It had been a dream season for senior Michael Liberto.
The laid-back shortstop from Louisiana had been one of the best players all season for the Missouri baseball team.
He had solidified the shortstop position on the infield and the leadoff position in the lineup. His offense and defense were both stellar.
Earlier this season, Liberto credited his success to being in the right place at the right time.
But in the Tigers’ 5-2 loss to Texas on Friday at Taylor Stadium, Liberto wasn’t batting leadoff and he wasn’t at shortstop.
At a practice earlier this week, while taking infield drills, Liberto's jaw broke when he was hit by a line drive. The ball wasn’t hit hard, but it hit him in the wrong spot.
Liberto’s jaw is wired shut, and coach Tim Jamieson said it is doubtful that he will return.
“The doctor says he can play, but he can’t even eat,” Jamieson said. “It’s just unfortunate for Mike. It’s his senior year and to not be able to finish it on the field, that’s unfortunate for him. The team will respond, but I feel really bad for him.”
With Liberto likely done, the Tigers will look for someone new to step up. In Friday’s game, sophomore Conner Mach played second base, while regular second baseman Eric Garcia moved to shortstop.
Garcia did not have any problems defensively.
“I’ve played shortstop almost my whole life now, so it didn’t feel too weird going from second to short,” Garcia said. “I felt comfortable.”
With defense covered, Mach was called upon to supply the offensive part of Liberto’s job.
Mach had a great series against Nebraska last weekend, but has spent most of this season on the bench. Mach went from April 6 to May 15 without an at-bat.
Mach said the low point for him was getting swept by Kansas earlier this year and not being able to be on the field.
“It’s tough because you never know when you’re going to get your shot,” Mach said. “You’re hoping that you can get in there, but after two months, it’s kind of tough. You do kind of lose your morale, but you’ve got to stay strong and keep working hard and that’s what I did.”
Mach hit his second home run of the season in the game, and the team didn’t play badly without its leadoff hitter and shortstop.
However, Mach said he can’t be happy with the way he has gotten his opportunity.
And while the team survived, they missed Liberto’s biggest gift: his leadership.
“Every opportunity you get, you have to take advantage of it,” Mach said. “But a situation like that is never good. Everyone’s a little heartbroken on that one. He’s such a good player, he’s such a good guy and he’s just a good leader.”
Missouri (27-23, 10-14 Big 12) has clinched a spot in the Big 12 tournament. The Tigers will play Texas (44-8, 22-3 Big 12) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Taylor Stadium and finish the season with the Longhorns at 1 p.m. Sunday. The Big 12 tournament begins Wednesday in Oklahoma City.