CHICAGO--It took 11 innings for the 10th annual Under Armour All-America Game to be settled, and it was only decided after a football player from North Carolina singled up the middle against a center fielder from Philadelphia.
Jordyn Adams--who is committed to North Carolina to play both football and baseball--drove a fastball right back up the middle against Mike Siani--a standout defensive outfielder with a strong lefty arm, who put it to use when the game went into extra innings--to give the American side a 2-1 victory.
The game was well played on both sides, and as the low score might indicate, was primarily a pitcher’s duel, as 19 of the top arms in the 2018 high school class showed their stuff in one-inning stints, with the exception of Siani (two innings), Mississippi righthander J.T. Ginn (two innings) and Arizona lefthander Matthew Liberatore.
Liberatore was scheduled to throw the ninth inning and was told the Friday night that he could go a few innings more if the game went long. For the first five and a half innings it seemed like that was going to be the case, as neither the American nor National club could put a run on the board.
The American team scratched a run when Georgia two-way player Ben Harris scored on a wild pitch in the bottom of the sixth. Shortly thereafter, the Sunshine State teamed up to tie the game for the National team. Nander De Sedas stroked a hard single to right off a 90 mph fastball and reached third base on an error. First baseman Triston Casas then jumped on a fastball up in the zone, one-hopping the left-field fence and driving in De Sedas to tie the game 1-1.
Fortunately Liberatore was ready to keep pitching.
“I feel like I get better as the game goes on,” Liberatore said. “I get stronger as the game goes on. Start getting a feel for pitches.”
Liberatore was impressive from his first inning to his last, striking out five batters while pitching primarily off of his two-seam fastball, but racking up four of his strikeouts with a devastating 12-to-6 curve--a pitch that he’s comfortable enough with to throw in 3-2 counts, which he successfully did Saturday night.
“I actually threw a lot of two-seams today which I don't normally do,” he said, after being named the 2017 Under Armour All-American Player of the Game. “I just felt like I was staying through it really well and it had good life to it. And plus I went a lot away to righties and that nice run at the end, the late life--I like that a lot.
“Curveball, that's usually my go-to pitch, my out pitch. I always feel like I have good command of that, I can throw it in any count . . . It hasn't always been that sharp. A couple years ago the guy (who works with my pitching coach) showed me a ring finger tuck, so instead of just having two fingers on the ball and your ring finger on the side, you actually tuck the ring finger under so it puts a bunch of pressure on the ball. And so I can actually throw it with just my ring finger and middle finger on the ball and it's just kind of for support, and it spins so much more. I lost about two miles an hour from it, one to two, so it's like 70-72 now, but it has a lot more bite and a lot more rpms.”
However he holds it, the pitch had depth and bite and proved to be too much for National team batters Saturday night. Another challenge for the National team was getting balls past Florida infielder Blaze Alexander, who got time at shortstop, second and third--making plays at each position.
His first came at shortstop in the top of the fourth inning, when Canadian catcher Noah Naylor rolled over an 85 mph off speed pitch from Georgia prep southpaw Luke Bartnicki, making a fairly routine play and showing plus arm strength with an accurate throw. He had another chance two batters later and showed the same strong arm to beat a 4.55 run time from Texas prep infielder Jordan Groshans--who tripled into the right-center gap later in the game.
In the top of the fifth inning, Alexander made a pair of plays from the keystone position, showing quickness on a ball to the first base side and smooth hands, and ranging to his right one batter later and again showing off the arm to beat a 4.25 run time from Siani down the line.
“I think I'm one of the most athletic infielders in the country, players in the country,” Alexander said. “So anywhere in the field a ball's hit, I'm going to go get it, I'm going to make a play.”
Always looking to show off his arm strength, Alexander also showed good defensive instincts while playing third base in the top of the seventh, picking a ground ball off the bat of Mississippi outfielder Joe Gray Jr. and deciding to keep the ball and tag out Groshans at third, who attempted to dive back into the bag.
“Yeah I saw him creeping off third (before the play),” Alexander said. “I thought he was going to dart home. I kind of wanted to show off the arm a little bit, I wanted to throw it across, but that was the easier play and it was a big play. Crowd went nuts, it was amazing.”
That play ended the National team’s scoring threat in the seventh, and eventually allowed Liberatore to show his dominance on the mound in multiple innings, and give Adams his shot to win the game.
It also capped off a week that allowed Alexander, Liberatore and the 38 other players invited to Wrigley Field, to be treated like the big league players they each are hoping to become.
“I don't know if I can even describe it yet, it's still pretty surreal,” Liberatore said, with his Player of the Game belt slung across his left shoulder. “I think it's going to take a couple days to set in and be like, 'Wow, I pitched on Wrigley . . .'
“It's been absolutely amazing. Under Armour has treated us so well, we've eaten like kings the past few days--three, four, five meals a day. Smoothies everyday. Super nice buses, hotel is amazing, it's just been an amazing experience.”
“You're on the field and you're getting chills,” he said. “It's a blessing. It's amazing. It felt like I was an All-Star. It was one of the best experiences I've ever had in my life.”
And if words don’t prove it, the scene 20 minutes after the game was over might.
With most players crowded around the Ivy wall in right field, taking pictures with family and friends, or talking to teammates before they head on to the next event of the summer showcase schedule, there was Jordyn Adams--the hero of the game--signing baseballs, and towels, and whatever else a group of kids huddled around the first base dugout could find to toss his way.
-- Carlos Collazo (@CarlosACollazo) July 30, 2017