Hit batter lights Liberty’s fire, Lions claim 5A baseball title

The Liberty Baseball team celebrates after their 5A championship game win against Verrado on Tuesday, May 15, 2018 at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

A state baseball final creates an emotional crucible few high school games can mimic.

Adding a frustrated pitcher bouncing the ball to hit a batter he has a history with just lights the match.

Leading No. 4 seed Liberty 2-1 Tuesday with one out in the top of the third, Buckeye Verrado senior pitcher Kyle Wellman had a disagreement with some ball and strike calls. With three balls in the count, Wellman bounced a pitch that hit senior catcher Brady Welch in the leg — and Welch, sure it was not an accident, slammed his bat down and a dust-up nearly ensued.

“It fired the whole team up. You don’t do that. I don’t care if he did it intentionally or not. He’s had problems with me forever and I don’t know what it is, probably because I hit two home runs off him. I don’t know,” Welch said. “I’m not one to get too mad. The whole team got fired up. I got fired up. And we didn’t stop.”

Rather that getting thrown off their game, the Lions used it as fuel, almost immediately taking the lead. Liberty scored on the next two at bats. Senior Jace Johnson hit an RBI single to left, and junior Luke Pauga plated another on a well-placed ground ball to the right side.

From there the Lions never looked back, shutting down No. 2 Verrado (28-5) and winning the 5A state title 6-2 at Tempe Diablo Stadium. It marks the program’s second state title in four finals appearances — Liberty won in 2010, the school’s first year with a senior class.

“Their kids are hard outs — especially Brown, Butler and Keith. (Keith) is the 5A state player of the year and drove in fantasy baseball numbers so keeping him down was huge,” Raymond said. “We talked about being us (after Welch was hit). We walked that fine line. Our guys are really awesome when it comes to being in the game situationally.”

Both teams scored in the first inning. Senior J.D. Wadleigh hit a comebacker for a single and Welch smacked an RBI double to right center. Raymond started senior Cameron Bracke, wanting to save junior ace Chandler Murphy for the middle and the end.

The Vipers struck Bracke early. Senior Henry Brown doubled to deep center leading off the first and senior Brady Bulger hit a single that dropped in front of a diving Lion outfielder but died on the grass, keeping Brown at second, and was doubled up on the ensuing flyout.

Senior Dominic Demarbiex hit a two-out single and senior Andrew Coleman walked. Freshman Jake King drove in a run on an infield single and helped another score on a high throw to first.

After a leadoff walk in the second, Murphy came in for Bracke. He received a diving catch fromn Wadleigh to end the threat.

“Chandler was miraculous as usual. The bigger the stakes the better Chandler threw,” Raymond said. “That was the plan. We wanted him to get the final out at the end. But J.D. Wadleigh had been on the mound at the end in this situation early in the tournament. And that’s key too.”

Liberty’s Brady Welch hits for a RBI single during a 5A championship game against Verrado on Tuesday, May 15, 2018 at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]
Then came the game changing bounced bean of Welch. Christian Contreras came in to run for the catcher. Johnson plated Wadleigh, then Pauga took a throw to home out of the equation.

“Just being able to add a little flair to it … that pissed us off, lit our fire and got us going,” Pauga said. “Coming into this season we knew we didn’t have the same firepower we had. But we also knew we were grinders we could create runs if we needed to.”

Murphy walked the first two hitters in the third but quickly recovered, then motored through the fifth. Liberty grabbed its cushion in the top of the fifth. Welch hit a leadoff single and Christian Contreras came in to run for the catcher. He took second on a throwing error.

Pauga drove Contreras in on a single. Senior Trevor Felan singled and senior Jake Kelley drove in senior pinch runner Tyler Durelle on a well-placed ground ball to the right side.

“My approach didn’t really change (coming on in relief). My location was better against some hitter, as was where to start my off-speed,” Murphy said. “True love for this team. They get runs for me whenever I need them in key moments.”

King tripled to right field in the fifth but was stuck at third. Murphy gave way to Wadleigh with one out in the sixth.

By then, the Lions led 6-2. Senior Kai Tuita raced all the way to third on a misplayed fly ball and Welch drove him in.

“My three hits were all on fastballs. It just was getting the foot down early like coach Raymond teaches us and driving it right where it was pitched,” Welch said.

A double and error put two Vipers on in their last chance, then a walk loaded the bases. Wadleigh ended thoughts of a rally, getting a strikeout — looking — to secure the title.

Liberty’s Jake Kelley fields a ground ball during a 5A championship game against Verrado on Tuesday, May 15, 2018 at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]
“No lead is safe in the state playoffs. It wouldn’t be a Liberty Lions playoff game if the bases weren’t loaded in the seventh,” Raymond said.

The senior, who moved to Peoria from Lakewood, Colo. before the school year, was thrilled to close it out for the team that welcomed him almost instantly.

“Every team we had to play in this tournament could swing it. My guys helped me stay confident, knowing I can trust them every time the ball is hit in play,” Wadleigh said. “The culture of this team is a true family. We’re out there for each other. From the get-go I was welcomed with open arms.”

After a near miss last year, when the Lions took the top seed into the final eight only to lose to eventual champion Kellis in the semifinals, this senior class learned and led a squad with less pure talent. But the pitching, sound defense and grit to scratch out runs proved the perfect formula.

Welch said the turnaround started with a team meeting when the squad had an 8-7 record.

This was a blowout by Liberty’s standards this postseason. Three one-run wins — 2-1 against Scottsdale Chaparral, 4-3 over Queen Creek and 4-3 against Gilbert Mesquite. Even more than his baseball brothers, it was a satisfying end for Johnson. He was the Lions’ leading receiver this fall on a team that came achingly close to knocking out 5A.

“I’m speechless. I can’t find any words for it. We’ve been working our whole lives for this moment and now it’s finally here,” Johnson said.

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