ON TO TUCSON: Chandler Murphy moves past draft, prepares to pitch for Arizona

Liberty senior pitcher Chandler Murphy prepares to deliver a pitch during his relief outing in the May 3 6A elimination game against Chandler Basha at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa. [Courtesy Ami Davidson/For West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

Timing is not everything. But it is close.

Chandler Murphy’s Major League Baseball draft position took a hit thanks to teams’ uncertainty with his recovery from a bout with tendinitis in March and April. However, the 6-3 pitcher and recent Liberty High graduate is moving forward — and has a heck of a fall back position.

Murphy entered his senior season as an early round prospect. But he and his father, Kevin, believe a communication breakdown caused his stock to drop to the 36th round, where the Houston Astros made Murphy the 1,096th overall pick.

“He was looking at late first round or early second round. He got tendinitis midway through the season and came back at the end,” Kevin Murphy said.

“I never got an MRI because it was tendinitis,” Chandler Murphy said.

“They said an MRI would have helped with our bosses. I wish they would have told us that sooner,” Kevin Murphy said.

Chandler said a contract offer of $1 million (or more) would lead him to sign with the professional team. That was very unlikely to happen because of his draft position, and a week after the draft ended on June 5, Murphy said he was already looking forward to pitching for the University of Arizona.

He signed with the Wildcats before his sophomore season began. Before he pitched an inning for then-new Liberty coach Chris Raymond in 2017, college baseball powerhouses like Florida State and Virginia joined Arizona and Arizona State in offering Murphy.

The Wildcats were the NCAA baseball runner up in 2016, but Murphy said that recent success did not factor much into his verbal commitment. Coach Jay Johnson’s ability to balance a serious approach to the sport with way to keep the team loose made more of an impression.

His older brother, Kyler, just finished his career at Seattle University and has played with several current Wildcat players, who all spoke well of the program. Former Liberty pitcher Nathan Bannister was a top starter on the 2016 Wildcats and put in a favorable word as well.

He will join former region rival Zach Martinez of Mountain Ridge in the recruiting class and a team full of returnees determined to improve on the Wildcats 32-24 record this spring.

“I’m extremely excited. I know they didn’t have a great year, but with this recruiting class of pitchers and young bats and I’m super excited about the opportunity,” Chandler Murphy said.

When he made his verbal commitment to the Wildcats, Murphy was less sure about his high school program. The Lions were coming off their worst season in 2016, and Murphy was one of the few bright spots in an 11-17 campaign.

New coach Raymond upped the Lions competitive drive and energy level, but Murphy admitted the first couple months were a culture shock.

Little did he know Liberty’s next three teams would go a combined 68-27, with three deep playoff runs and one state title.

“I couldn’t ask for a better three teams to pay for. Each practice we had something to compete about,” Chandler Murphy said.

Raymond said he watched Murphy throw before he became his coach.

That season the first-time head coach realized that Murphy raised his game as the stakes of the games got bigger. Then-junior Isaiah Montoya was the ace at first, but Murphy threw three shutout innings in a playoff rout of Tempe McClintock and shined in a 2-1 loss in a pitchers’ duel with Kellis star Adrian Salazar.

“That first tournament, he was sensational,” Raymond said.

A year later, Murphy and the Lions were in the opposite role. In 2017 Liberty entered ranked No. 1 and Kellis was the No. 13 seed that got on a roll — all the way to the championship.

In 2018, Liberty used a late-season run to jump to the No. 4 seed. Montoya won the first double-elimination game against Scottsdale Chaparral and then Murphy was able to close out the title run like Salazar the previous year.

He started the ensuing 4-3 victory against Queen Creek, then pitched 6 1/3 innings in the 4-3 win that eliminated top seed Gilbert Mesquite and propelled the Lions to the finals.

“That state playoffs was the culmination of that mentality. He held down a very good high school team in Mesquite,” Raymond said. “He’s the best-big game pitcher I’ve ever seen at the high school level.”

Winning that game allowed Liberty to play Buckeye Verrado in the 5A title game five days later, which mean Murphy could pitch on full rest.

Senior Cameron Bracke started and pitched an inning. Murphy entered with the Lions trailing 2-1 and shut the Vipers down for the next 4 1/3 innings, striking out five and allowing three hits en route to a 6-2 title victory.

“When I come into the game I don’t really get nervous. I try to think of it as another game. These big games are something nice to have under your belt when you go into college,” Chandler Murphy said.

This season, the Lions and their star pitcher embraced the challenge of moving up to 6A. In his final start before the tendinitis was discovered, Murphy pitched a no-hitter against eventual 5A champion Phoenix Horizon March 14 in the Boras Classic.

Raymond kept the young Lions team afloat and in playoff position. Liberty won six of its final seven games to leap to the No. 10 seed in 6A.

“Coach Ray is a great coach. He gets fired up but he knows how to get up but he knows how to get the most out of kids,” Kevin Murphy said. “This year, he and his staff got the most out of this young team.”

The coach had to set up his pitching differently. Most games, Murphy was not going to allow more than two runs.

With him on the mound, Raymond said, Lions batters were able to relax and even exceeded their seasonal runs average. His presence made weeks and tournaments easier to plan.

“I’ve never witnessed a high school player that was more professional,” Raymond said.

The ace returned, but in a different role, tossing a shutout inning of relief in a 1-0 loss to eventual champion Chandler Hamilton April 30. Then he contributed 2 2/3 innings of scoreless baseball in a season-saving 3-1 victory over Chandler Basha.

He added three innings in the final 6-3 loss to Mountain Ridge, as Lions errors cost the team two runs.

Raymond said Murphy’s mastery of three pitches with several variants should allow for a smooth transition to Division I college baseball.

“I think they’re going to get a competitor and professional who cares about his craft,” Raymond said.

Liberty junior starting pitcher Chandler Murphy prepares to deliver a pitch during the state 5A baseball final May 15, 2018 against Buckeye Verrado. He picked up the win in the state title game. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

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