West Valley Preps
TEMPE – Players returning from the 2017 Liberty baseball team were able to experience life in the other dugout at Diablo Stadium.
A year ago, Liberty was the top seed in the 5A playoffs, saddled with an early loss but confident that if could beat Kellis twice to reach the state title game. This year, #1 Gilbert Mesquite was in that role against #4 Liberty – which had two chances to beat the Wildcats and reach the finals.
Like Liberty last year, Mesquite threatened late and was a hit away for at least tying the game in the seventh inning. With two runners on and two outs Wildcats junior T.J. Clarkson drove a J.D. Wadleigh pitch to deep left field of the big league spring training ballpark.
But senior left fielder Kai Tuita got a jump on it and caught the final out on the run to complete the role reversal. That allowed the Lions to withstand a two-run top of the seventh for Mesquite and win 4-3 Thursday night.
“I remember the feeling we went through after that loss last year. I remember turning to a couple of the seniors now and saying we were not going to let that happen again. We were going to get to the title game and win it,” Tuita said.
Liberty (22-8) will play No. 2 Buckeye Verrado (27-4) for the 5A title at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Diablo Stadium. The Vipers prevailed in an 8-7 regular season slugfest March 9.
The schedule allows coach Chris Raymond the option of starting junior ace Chandler Murphy on normal rest, as well as the rest of the Lions’ power arms.
This team, while not overflowing with talent like the 2017 version, has a chance to lift the trophy thanks to its pitching, defense and steely resolve. Once they moved into their four-team, double-elimination bracket the Lions beat each of the other three teams — winning all three games by one run.
“We’re playing our best baseball in May. Our kids are mentally tough. (The one-run wins) are symbolic of that,” Raymond said. “Chandler hit his pitch count. We’ll celebrate tonight and go work tomorrow. We have a lot of able guys that have thrown throughout the playoffs. It’s a tribute to our pitching coach Mike Schiefelbein. He has those guys situationally prepared.”
Murphy and Mesquite senior pitcher Chase Webster controlled the game early.
Liberty’s University of Arizona commit allowed second inning singles to Clarkson and senior David Watson and walked Cole Westerlund to load the bases with two outs. Murphy escaped the jam with a strike out.
Then, in the bottom of the third, his lineup gave him run support.
Senior Cameron Bracke led off with a bloop single to right. Tuita and Wadleigh hit back-to-back singles to load the bases with two down.Welch poked a single to shallow right near the first base line to give the Lions a 2-0 lead.
“He got me with a slider and a changeup in my first at bat. I saw one fastball. The second at bat was three straight sliders. The way I looked at it, I was going to get another one so I just laid back and threw my hands out,” Welch said.
In the next two innings Liberty would rely on its catcher’s arm
Wildcats senior Jacob Henderson reached first on a two-out error but Welch ended the top of the fourth inning by catching him trying to steal second.
Westerlund began the fifth by smacking a triple to deep right center. After a strikeout, he scored on junior Holden Breeze’s single.
However, Mesquite sent Breeze on a steal attempt — on a 3-1 count no less — and Welch gunned him down. That proved crucial for the Lions to maintain their 2-1 lead after Murphy allowed a walk and a single by senior Willie Cano.
Junior slugger Davis Heller (13 home runs) nearly got all of a Murphy fastball but Tuita snagged it on the warning track.
Raymond called Welch a “momentum killer” in reference to his ability to wipe out the opponents’ running game.
“The (regular season) game they tried running one time and I threw him out. I wasn’t expecting them to be this aggressive tonight,” Welch said. “It was a tough pitch to throw on, a curveball and kind of across the plate a little bit. I didn’t have the best grip on it but I just let it fly, got him, and let Murphy do his job. There’s no better pitcher in the state.”
Murphy could breathe easier after his teammates added two runs in the sixth. Senior Jace Johnson walked and junior Luke Pauga made the Wildcats pay for dropping a popup, hitting a single.
Senior Trevor Felan bunted both over. Then senior pinch hitter Isaiah Montoya scorched a two-run double down the first base line.
Both runs were necessary. Murphy fanned the leadoff man in the seventh, but singles by senior Clay Thompson and Breeze ended his night.
Wadleigh entered and hit junior Grant Gorrell with a pitch to load the bases. Cano’s sacrifice fly to right made it 4-2 with two outs.Heller hammered an RBI double to center on an 0-2 count. Clarkson would have matched him but for Tuita’s wheels in left.
“Honestly, I dream of a moment like that, catching that game winning out in that big situation,” Tuita said. “I’d like to give a shout out to our outfielders coach (A.J. Robinson) because he had us work very hard. we do certain situations where we are blinding ourselves with the sun and making each catch super hard. That way we get into this situation with the lights, we can pick up the ball.”
Liberty has reached four state title games in just 10 years of play —with three different head coaches. So Raymond has to remind a program with big expectations that these opportunities are rare jewels.
“We’re just in the moment. We talked to our guys several times this week about enjoying today. Go out and enjoy today because in life, these opportunities are not always there. To go to a title game, that’s a special memory for our kids,” Raymond said.
Beyond themselves, the Class of 2018 wanted to win this for the Class of 2017. That group along with the arrival of Raymond and his staff restored Liberty baseball to its place near the mountaintop.
“The team we had last year was very talented and had a lot of great senior leadership. We had three captains but honestly, everyone was a captain. With there only being two juniors that regularly played (last year) the other juniors who didn’t play, they learned. We got to this moment and we knew how to act, how to play, and what to do,” Welch said.