West Valley Preps
Matthew Liberatore was a pitcher before he was and arm. And he was a student before he was a star athlete.
Perhaps that is why Liberatore has remained grounded during his three-year odyssey from the new starter at Mountain Ridge to a near-consensus top 10 prospect in the June Major League Baseball draft.
“I never expected to play college baseball or have the opportunity to play professional baseball. The past four years have been an eye-opening experience for me. It’s pretty surreal,” Liberatore said.
Not only is Liberatore in a spotlight few high school athletes garner, he is bringing his Mountain Lions teammates with him.
The 6-5 lefty’s presence made Mountain Ridge a natural choice to take part in the USA Baseball National High School Invitational in late March at Cary, N.C.
“It’s been a lot. When we went to North Carolina, it was crazy. It would take him literally a half-hour to 45 minutes to get out of there each time,” Mountain Ridge coach Artie Cox said. “It’s kind of calmed down as the season has gone on. But we had 100-plus scouts here for his first game.”
The whirlwind will peak later this week. Liberatore and childhood friend Nolan Gorman of nearby O’Connor are drawing so much attention, particularly from MLB scouts, that these rivals agreed to move their games Thursday and Friday to Grand Canyon University.
Liberatore started playing at age 3, and was a little league teammate of Gorman’s. Both boys dads coached their youth team, the Stetson Hills Stealth.
Liberatore said both fathers were good teachers who instilled a sense of humility in their kids. They remain close friends today and good sounding boards for each other while going through the intensity of the draft spotlight.
“It’s definitely pretty weird that it’s happened for two guys that live that close and have grown up together,” Liberatore said. “More than anything it’s been a really cool experience to have someone like that to go through this with and talk to about it. Our connection isn’t solely baseball-based. We have a friendship that goes beyond that. Our parents are really close friends and we go out to dinner with them all the time.”
Cox is in his first year as Mountain Lions’ head coach, but served as Lance Billingsley’s pitching coach the last three years. Coaches brought Liberatore up so he could learn from future Grand Canyon pitcher Justin Revels, and follow his throwing program.
“When we got him he was a backwards guy. He relied on offspeed pitches. Physically, he wasn’t in the shape he is now,” Cox said. “His freshman year, we made him throw fastballs. The velocity started coming with the workout programs that he was doing. Once that happened he really focused and realized he had a chance. We knew from day one he had a chance because he was a really good left-handed pitcher and the size was there.”
It was heady stuff, as Liberatore said he entered high school just wanting to make varsity. He played with Central Florida Gators travel team in that summer, and scouts started to take notice.
A growth spurt his sophomore year had his fastball touching 84. Mountain Ridge had placed third in Division I the previous year and was invited to the National Baseball Classic in Orange County in 2016 — and became the first Arizona team to win the event.
“When we went to California for that big tournament, that was his coming out. He was lights out and ended up getting the starts in the playoffs,” Cox said.
Mountain Ridge was the 2016 Division I runner up and Liberatore started in the final as a sophomore. He and the rest of the current seniors got a taste.
“I think Mountain Ridge in particular does a good job of making it feel like it’s not just a hobby. You don’t come out and go through the motions. We’re all in this to win a state championship at the end of the day and I think we showed that this fall, winning a bunch of events. We’ve carried that into the season. It’s moving in the direction of what a college program would look like, I believe,” Liberatore said.
By his junior year, the fastball was closer to 90 and the pitcher was moving up the draft boards. His dad, Anthony, had taught him how to mix up his pitches and emphasized hitting his spots.
“He’s been the same all the way through. He’s been even-keeled. I think he’s had the right people around him also. He’s pretty much the same kid we saw four years ago,” Cox said. “That’s the impressive part about him. He handles everything that’s going on really well.”
Mountain Ridge had an uneven start and dropped to the No. 14 ranking in 6A after being upset by Mesa on April 9. But huge wins against Phoenix Pinnacle and Chandler Hamilton April 12 and 13 to jump back up to No. 9 as of Monday.
The Mountain Lions kept the momentum, winning 9-3 at Pinnacle Tuesday afternoon.
Then the O’Connor double dip and Phoenix Horizon on April 23 are it before the playoffs start.
“We want to go out being okay with what we accomplished. We don’t talk about state championships every day. Obviously it’s in the back of our minds. But our coach preaches that we focus on the day-to-day stuff and take care of what we need to that day,” Liberatore said.
Cox said this year he has been extra careful watching Liberatore’s innings of use and making sure scouts knows when he is pitching.
He has operated on seven to nine days rest as opposed to five last year. That usage will ramp up for the playoffs.
Now, another pitching prospect, junior Zach Martinez, is having more of an effect after transferring in from Joy Christian. He will be the No. 2 starter.
No. 3 pitcher Mitchael Dyer is hitting 90 now and benefitting from the extra attention.
“It’s really fun for the program and other guys are getting eyes on them. We have other prospects like Mitchell Dyer that have gotten noticed because there’s so many eyes at some games,” Cox said.
He said Liberatore leads the pitchers, including their workouts and throwing program. His fastball has touched 97 this year.
Liberatore (and Gorman for that matter) is signed with the University of Arizona, though unless the draft takes a surprising turn he will have a lot of money thrown his way.
But if he heads to college, Liberatore said he would like to study kinesiology or on a track to become a physical therapist or trainer.
“I love learning about the body, how it works and how it relates to what I do out here,” Liberatore said. “All of the guys on the team will come to me and be like, ‘Hey, I’m sore here, what’s going on.’ Just because I’ll go home and read or watch videos about injuries or workouts.”
While there are big decisions to make this summer, Liberatore said he is focusing on finishing his high school career the best way possible.
“At the end of the day, I don’t decide who drafts me, that’s random. I don’t decide whether I go to school or where I’m drafted. Making sure I’m doing something every day to put me closer to where I want to be, that’s what I can control,” Liberatore said.