SAN DIEGO–For a second there, it seemed as though Nolan Gorman had run out of magic.
Leading into Sunday’s Perfect Game All-American Classic at Petco Park, the powerful prep infielder from Phoenix had treated home run derbies like American Pharaoh treats horse races. Fresh off a derby win earlier this week at the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Gorman had won three straight major derbies this summer, including the Under Armour All-American derby and the high school derby at the MLB All-Star Game.
Somewhat shockingly, he didn’t win PG’s All-American derby Sunday, falling to outfielder Preston Hartsell. But that was OK. He’d go on to make bigger swings.
In the third inning of a scoreless Classic on Sunday night, instead of swatting a BP fastball, Gorman turned on 95 mph heat from two-way talent Mason Denaburg, ripping the pitch into the right-field stands for a two-run shot.
He wasn’t finished. In the eighth inning, Gorman singled off of a left-on-left breaking ball to drive in two more runs. Gorman provided all of the offense the West squad needed, as the team defeated the East squad, 6-1.
“It’s just another game, I guess,” Gorman said on the field afterward, still dripping with blue Powerade and holding a clear MVP trophy in his hands. “But this one’s a little bit more special because it’s the 53 best high school players in the nation.”
Gorman, along with cleanup hitter Jordan Groshans–who hit a laser into the brick wall of the Western Metal Supply Co. building beyond the left-field fence–were the rare offensive standouts in a game defined by pitching.
Georgia prep righties Kumar Rocker and Ethan Hankins were electric for the East team, as they have been throughout the summer, pitching the first and second innings, respectively. Rocker touched 97 mph and commanded a hard mid-80s slider, while Hankins sat 94-96, threw a biting mid-70s curve and worked at a lightning-quick pace.
For the West, it was only appropriate that lefthander Matthew Liberatore got the ball to start the game. Along with Gorman, Liberatore was one of two Arizona-based prospects on the roster. Both Gorman and Liberatore are Arizona commits, and, in fact, the two have been best friends since they were 5 years old, playing baseball and football (and video games) together.
The duo roomed together during the Under Armour All-America Game; they ate dinner with each other every night at Area Codes. And back home, they play at rival high schools–Liberatore for Mountain Ridge High in Peoria and Gorman for O’Connor High in Glendale.
Liberatore struck out Gorman twice during the regular season of their sophomore year–but surrendered two hits to him in the playoffs. This past season, the lefty struck out Gorman twice again. He hasn’t yet allowed a homer against him.
“Hopefully, we keep it that way,” Liberatore said, laughing. “Being best friends, you figure out little things about him, even off the field, that help you get him out on the field. So if you can execute pitches, which I seem to do well when I face him, I can get him out.
“These guys out here don’t know him as well as I do, so if you make a mistake pitch, he’s gonna do what he did tonight against Mason.”
Liberatore had a night to remember, as well. (“He’s always good,” Gorman said.) The lefthander worked 92-94 mph with commanded, mixing in a 12-6 curveball in the low 70s and an 83 mph changeup with excellent fading action. Similar to Hankins, Liberatore varied the tempo of his delivery to try to fool hitters, throwing a quick-pitch 94 mph fastball and a quick-pitch changeup to pick up two swinging strikeouts.
He was throwing a tick or two harder than he did at Area Codes, where he sat 90-91.
“I was definitely pretty amped up,” the lanky 6-foot-5, 185-pound southpaw said. “And I had week off since I threw at Area Codes, so I’ve had time to prepare, play long toss, throw a pen, get some running in, so I felt really fresh tonight. And it just seemed like every event this summer my velo has gone up and up as I get more in shape and my mechanics get smoother and I get a better feel for my stuff.”
As Liberatore has grown throughout the summer, so has Gorman, and the best friends have been able to enjoy each other’s successes–particularly on Sunday night. The two hang out every weekend, spend every second with each other, and Liberatore has been the first person to run out and congratulate Gorman after every home run derby win.
“Everything we do is pretty much with each other,” Liberatore said. “We’ve pretty much had the same summer, and to see him shine like that is awesome at every single event.”
No, Gorman didn’t win a fourth straight home run derby Sunday night.
He’ll have to settle for MVP.