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Matthew Liberatore Helps Even Playoff Series, Hands Ball To Shane McClanahan

BLUEFIELD, Va.—When they saw the way their team had lined up its starting rotation for the first round of the Appalachian League playoffs, Matthew Liberatore and Shane McClanahan were stoked.

Princeton's pair of first-round lefthanders were slated to get the ball in Game 2 and Game 3 of the series, respectively, following fellow first-rounder Shane Baz, who was added to the Rays organization last month as the player to be named later in the trade that sent Chris Archer to Pittsburgh.

Baz struggled in Game 1, in which the P-Rays fell to Bluefield, meaning that Liberatore and McClanahan were set up for a pair of potential do-or-die games on Saturday and Sunday. The roommates relished the challenge.

Liberatore drew the ball in Game 2, and he took the mound with a little bit of advice from his roommate.

“Go out there and shove,” Liberatore said, reiterating what McClanahan told him. “Trust your stuff and go out there and do what I’ve done the past four or five times I’ve taken the mound.”

Liberatore set the tone early, attacking Bluefield’s lineup with a combination of fastballs, sliders and changeups the made it clear he was not playing around. His fastball sat in the low 90s and touched as high as 94 mph, and he struck out the first batter of the game on a nasty 83 mph slider.

In all, the 18-year-old spun 4.1 innings of five-hit, shutout ball with five strikeouts and two walks. The start punctuated an excellent professional debut season, in which he went 2-2, 1.38 and struck out 37 batters across 32.2 innings between the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Princeton.

In addition to his fastball, Liberatore showed three offspeed pitches: a low-80s slider with sharp bite away from lefties, a mid-80s changeup with fade and depth that he threw with excellent conviction, and a big curveball that he struggled to land at times. He recorded strikeouts with all four of his offerings.

“I felt good out there tonight,” Liberatore said. “Playoff atmosphere, so I think everyone’s a little more excited. It was really cool to be out there and competing on that level and I had a lot of fun.”

With the series tied, it’s up to McClanahan to send his team to the championship series. The uber-confident lefthander says he will be up to the challenge.

“It’s just baseball. You’ve got to go out there and have fun,” he said. “I love going out there and competing, whether it’s playoff atmosphere or just a regular-season game. Playoff atmosphere, though, there’s a little more on the line and you want to do whatever you can for your teammates to get that win. So, it’s exciting to have a chance to get us to the championship series.”

Like Liberatore, McClanahan is well-equipped to do damage on the mound.

Although he had a few hiccups with his control in his junior season at South Florida, his pitch mix was among the most dominant in this year’s draft class. He uses a whip-quick arm to produce a fastball that sits in the mid- to upper 90s and has touched triple-digits. He complements the pitch with a mid-80s slider and changeup, both of which can be projected as plus pitches. He used that arsenal to whiff 120 hitters in 76 innings in his final college season.

With his college career behind him, McClanahan has dominated as expected in his first taste of pro ball. He got into four games between the GCL and Princeton, and struck out 13 over a combined seven innings, with just three hits and a walk on his ledger.

College is over, now it’s time to show and prove.

“I think it’s pro ball, it’s sink or swim and the cream rises to the top,” he said. “You’ve just got to go out there and do everything you can to put your team in the best position as possible to win.”

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Even before this year’s draft, the Rays’ system had begun turning heads as one of the game’s most-talented groups. Willy Adames and Jake Bauers graduated from Triple-A and have established themselves as mainstays in the big league lineup.

Players like Jesus Sanchez, Vidal Brujan and Ronaldo Hernandez have electrified the low minors with their combinations of talent and production. And that was all before the Appalachian League’s season started and Wander Franco exploded into one of the game’s top five talents.

Then came the draft, in which the Rays had six of the first 100 picks. They spent picks No. 16 and No. 31 on Liberatore and McClanahan, both of whom immediately jumped into the Top 10 of an absurdly stacked system.

Liberatore showed what he could do on Saturday night while evening his first professional playoff series. Now McClanahan has a chance to finish what his teammate started and send Princeton to the Appalachian League finals.

“It’s not every day you get to see two high-level pitchers like Matt and Shane (Baz), go 1-2,” McClanahan said. “I feel extremely honored just to be in that rotation and talked about in the same vein as them. It’s very exciting. I got to go out there for two days and see how they attacked hitters and how they compete and just dominate the strike zone. That makes my job easier, just watching them compete because I can take what they do and try to do the exact same thing.”

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