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Matthew Liberatore Finds His Groove, Mountain Ridge Wins NHSI Opener 4-2

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CARY, N.C. — Scouts flooded the four fields at USA Baseball’s National Training Complex on Wednesday, but by the time 2:30 p.m. came around and Mountain Ridge (Riverdale, Ariz.) and Trinity Prep (Winter Park, Fla.) ran onto the field for their first-round game, nearly all radar guns and eyeballs were pointed in the same direction.

All of the attention was directed toward Mountain Ridge lefthander Matthew Liberatore, who recently ranked No. 3 on BA’s Top 300 draft prospects list. Not only is Liberatore the highest-ranked player competing at this year’s NHSI, but he also currently takes the crown as the top ranked high school prospect in the class of 2018, regardless of position.

But through the first two innings of Mountain Ridge’s eventual 4-2, extra-inning victory, something seemed just slightly off with the 6-foot-5 senior. He allowed a hard-hit single to Trinity Prep leadoff man Jacob Starling to start the game, which was a rarity in itself when Liberatore is on the mound.

By the time the second inning ended, Liberatore had also walked a batter, hit a batter, allowed an earned run, and allowed an unearned run because of a throwing error Liberatore himself committed trying to throw out a lead runner at second base.

It was an unusual set of circumstances for Liberatore—struggling against the type of competition he can usually dominate. But with a heavy dose of natural ability—and a few helpful tips from the Mountain Ridge coaches—it didn’t take long for Liberatore to correct his mistakes and quickly remind everyone in attendance why he is so highly regarded.

“For me it was a tempo thing,” Liberatore said. “I felt really good warming up. I felt like the ball was jumping out of my hand, so I was a little quick those first two innings.

“And I came back in after the second inning and my coach just sat me down and had me go through some breathing exercises and that next inning I went out with a little bit slower of a tempo, tried to gather myself a little more before I started to drive down the mound and everything started clicking for me.”

Over the next five innings, Liberatore was dominant. He struck out nine of the next 16 batters, including one particular stretch when he struck out six straight. The only time Liberatore faced more than the minimum over his last five innings was in the third, when Trinity Prep’s Andrew Roberts reached on a dropped third strike with one out. Liberatore then ended that four-batter inning with back-to-back strikeouts.

Pitching with a low-90s fastball that reached up to 95 mph, Liberatore was missing low and in the dirt with a lot of his pitches early. But even then, he allowed only one hit—to the first batter he faced—and walked just one. Eventually, Liberatore found command of his fastball and started throwing his offspeed pitches for strikes more consistently, including a recently-added slider in the low-80s, a mid-70s curveball and a mid-80s changeup.

At that point, Mountain Ridge head coach Artie Cox knew his ace had returned to normal.

“It was funny because as the game was going along I kept looking up at the board and I was just like, ‘We’ve only given up one hit,’” Cox said. “And for him it’s normally cruising. The first couple innings I think it kind of set us all a little array there for a little bit, but he cruised after that, settled in and looked really good.”

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While Liberatore was figuring things out and eventually became dominant, his teammates recovered from the 2-0 deficit nicely. Mountain Ridge scored a run in the third inning on an RBI single from senior Luke Blachut and then tied the game in the sixth on an RBI single from sophomore Brock Peery.

With Liberatore no longer on the mound as the game went into extra innings, Mountain Ridge righthander Zach Rogers took over and pitched two scoreless innings, striking out three and allowing only one hit. While Rogers was holding Trinity Prep at bay, Mountain Ridge sophomore Travis Warinner gave his team its first lead of the day with an RBI single in the ninth, which was quickly followed up with an RBI sacrifice fly by senior Jack Dieckman.

"It's nice to know that my team has my back and they're not going to lie down when the going gets tough," Liberatore said. "This is a team that I feel like—no matter how much we're down by—we always have that fight in us. We always want to come back and I don't ever think we're in a situation where we can't do that."

With the 4-2 win over Trinity Prep, Mountain Ridge advances into Thursday’s NHSI quarterfinals, when it will take on Green Hope (Cary, N.C.) at 4:30 p.m.

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