West Valley Preps
They sometimes say hitting is contagious. The Liberty Lions certainly proved it on Saturday afternoon.
Stymied offensively for much of the game, Liberty exploded for 15 runs in the final two innings to claim a 16-4 run-ruled victory over Vail Cienega in six innings of the 5A first-round baseball playoff at Lions Field.
“Their pitchers executed their game plan early but I feel like we wore them down,” said Liberty Head Coach Chris Raymond, whose team moved to 19-8 overall with their seventh straight victory. “We got to their bullpen and it was anybody’s game at that point. We were aggressive at the plate and our guys believe every inning we can score runs.”
Although the entire Lions team got involved in a memorable 15-batter, 11-run bottom of the fifth, senior catcher Brady Welch really flexed his muscles — he jacked a three-run bomb in the fifth and followed that up with a sixth-inning walkoff grand slam to end the game with the run-rule in effect.
“I went up to bat with a clear mind and got my pitch both times,” Welch said after the game. “We are never out of the fight. There is no quit in us. Even down by three runs, we had a great shot.”
Liberty, #4 in the 16-team 5A bracket, now moves to the double elimination portion of the tourney. They will face a familiar foe in 12th-seeded Chaparral (17-13), a 12-9 winner over #5 Lake Havasu, on Monday at 4 p.m. at Tempe’s Diablo Stadium.
Liberty’s last defeat was to the Firebirds, 2-1, on April 6 in Scottsdale.
“Chaparral is a quality team — anyone you play at this point is going to be good,” Raymond said. “Our guys will enjoy prom tonight and then we will start game planning for the next round.”
Prom looked like it would be downbeat for the boys, trailing 4-1 in the middle of the fifth. Then the Lions began to claw their way back into the game.
With one out, Welch singled and Tyler Durelle ran for him at first base. Jace Johnson followed with an RBI double to the right-center power alley, scoring Durelle to cut the lead to 4-2. Luke Pauga singled to left to plate Johnson and the comeback was on.
Cienega starting pitcher Cole Bramhall was pulled in favor of reliever Jake Ortiz, who struggled immediately.
Jake Kelley singled to put two runners on. Trevor Felan notched a base hit and Cameron Bracke delivered a huge two-run knock, giving Liberty their first lead of the game.
“I think the whole team collectively exhaled at that point,” Raymond said. “Then we started doing well when we got into hitter’s counts.”
Pinch hitter Kyle Lewis delivered an RBI single. J.D. Wadleigh reached on an error that scored another run. Welch then delivered the three-run homer that effectively put the game out of reach for Cienega.
Johnson and Pauga both scored again in the frame before the Bobcats finally escaped.
When the dust settled, Liberty had turned a 4-1 deficit into a 12-4 lead. They batted around, knocking out nine hits and plating 11 runs.
But the Northwest Region champions were not done, tacking on four more in the sixth to end the game an inning early. Jeremey Davidson, Kai Tuita and Wadleigh all singled to load the bases and set the stage for Welch.
He didn’t disappoint, sending the Liberty fans home happy after crushing a Nico Orlando offering off the back of the softball scoreboard over the left field wall. The grand slam gave Welch 7 RBIs in the game, all in the last two innings.
“Once you get to the bullpen, anything can happen,” Welch said.
His head coach said the work off the field is paying dividends for the 6-3, 220-pound catcher.
“His work ethic is tremendous. Brady puts the time in,” Raymond said. “It makes me happy to see it pay off for him in the playoffs.”
Welch had three hits — two homers and single — knocked in seven and score three runs. Pauga had two hits and scored twice. Felan added two hits and reached safely in all four of his plate appearances. Bracke tallied two RBIs.
Midway through the game, it looked like the visiting, 13th-seeded Bobcats (12-17) might pull off a shocking upset. The Lions were off balance at the plate and had no hits off Bramhall through four innings.
Liberty junior starter Chandler Murphy, an Arizona commit, was battling but allowed a run in the top of the first and three more in the top of the fifth. Devin Garrett walked with one out and Terrell Huggins blooped a single into the outfield. Luis Morales walked and Luke Morrison chopped a single into right, plating Garrett and giving Cienega a 2-1 lead.
Wyatt Wingstad added a sac fly then Morales trotted home on a fielding miscue by Liberty’s Johnson.
Down by three runs, Liberty’s collective body language was not great but that all changed following an incredible bottom of the fifth.
Isaiah Montoya (three strikeouts in 1.1 IP) took the win in relief for Liberty while Cienega’s Ortiz was tagged with the loss. Murphy went 4.2 innings, allowing four hits, four runs (three earned) while walking four and fanning seven.
“That kid (Murphy) has so much heart. He’s a young man with a ton of ability and he was grinding for us today,” Raymond said. “He gave us a chance to come back.”