Jack Liberatore saw coach Rob Smith emerge from the dugout and knew what was coming next.

He was going to hear another message about how hard he worked, how reliable he was and how proud Smith was to have him as a starter. Liberatore had just dominated Toledo for seven shutout innings and fought for two more outs in the eighth, but his time was up. He had done more than enough.

Liberatore shook the hands of each teammate around him and walked off the mound to an applause from the Ohio bench and fans at Bob Wren Stadium. None of it was new to Liberatore. With a 2.47 ERA, he’s ascended into one of Ohio’s best starters in his first full collegiate year, and starts like the one he had Saturday in the Bobcats’ 5-2 win aren’t rare for the right-hander.

They’re routine.

“He most certainly has one of the better brains for a younger player,” Smith said. “It makes it easy for me to put him in a big role like that.”

But his success didn’t come without patience. Liberatore is only a redshirt freshman, and he sat out his first year with Ohio because he was 18 years old and didn’t fit in a pitching staff full of veterans in the rotation and primary bullpen spots.

Liberatore watched pitchers like Michael Klein, Butch Baird and Gerry Salisbury — all seniors — lead the starting rotation in 2018. He had big shoes to fill if he wanted to crack the rotation in his first full year, and Liberatore prepared to go from the bench to the rotation and skip any time in the bullpen as soon as he shed his redshirt.

With just a three-pitch repertoire, Liberatore needed to offer more if he wanted to make the jump. A quality starter rarely relies on just a fastball, changeup and curveball, so Liberatore spent the off-year refining on a fourth pitch — his cutter.

Liberatore had little issue picking up the pitch, which pairs well with his fastball, but he only saves it for select moments. His four-seamer clocks in around 88 mph, and if a batter has seen the fastball a few times in an at-bat, Liberatore can mix in the cutter to add right-to-left movement on the pitch and hopefully throw off the batter.

“If (the cutter) is on that day, then coach Smith is going to call it,” Liberatore said. “I just got to execute it.”

An out-pitch is meaningless, however, if a pitcher is rattled on the mound, and that’s what has made Liberatore special. He’s separated himself from other Ohio pitchers by his ability to never be overwhelmed. Well, at least it never looks like he is.

Liberatore keeps a straight face throughout his starts whether the bases are loaded or empty, and his mound presence and ability to appear in control on the mound never changes.

It’s worked, too. Liberatore has been an expert at avoiding the big inning, and opponents have rarely been able to score runs in chunks, if they score at all. His 1.36 WHIP proves that.

A bad outing hasn’t ruined Liberatore’s confidence, either. His worst start of the season was March 10 against Wright State when he allowed six runs, all earned, in only three innings of work. He gave up his first home run of the season and took the loss in a 12-1 blowout.

His next start was much different. Liberatore shut out Army through 6 1/3 innings and gave up just three hits while striking out six batters in one of Ohio’s most flawless starts of the year. It was the only game the Bobcats won against the Black Knights.

Liberatore’s confidence has also helped him stay focused amidst Ohio’s offensive droughts. The offense scored only 13 runs in his first six starts, but the lack of run support never frustrated Liberatore, who still went 3-3 in that span and managed wins despite 2-1 and 1-0 results.

“He’s mature and he handles pressure well,” Smith said. “I think it’s his ability to manage himself mentally. I consider him a quiet competitor, but he competes in a matter that I think is very aggressive.”

Liberatore has been everything Ohio could have hoped for, and his importance will only grow if the Bobcats continue their push for a spot in the Mid-American Conference Tournament.

He’s ready to carry Ohio into the postseason. The question, though, is whether the Bobcats are ready to return the favor.