CARY, N.C. -- Of all the impressive pitching prospects to take the mound Wednesday on the first day of the 2018 National High School Invitational, none attracted a crowd of scouts behind the plate at Coleman Field quite like Matthew Liberatore of Mountain Ridge High (Glendale, Ariz.).
Liberatore, MLB Pipeline's No. 3 prospect for the 2018 Draft, scuffled early against Trinity Preparatory School (Winter Park, Fla.), allowing one run in each of the first two innings while struggling with his control. He settled in and finished his outing on a dominant note by striking out 10 of the final 17 batters he faced and allowing just one baserunner after the second inning.
:: 2018 USA Baseball National High School Invitational ::
Liberatore went on to complete seven innings, allowing two runs on one hit and one walk while throwing 63 of his 101 pitches for strikes, as Mountain Ridge defeated the Saints, 4-2, in nine innings.
Liberatore's afternoon began with him yielding a leadoff single to Trinity sophomore second baseman Jacob Starling, who then advanced to second base on a wild pitch and scored the game's first run on Andrew Roberts' groundout to shortstop.
The following frame saw Liberatore put the first two batters on base via a hit by pitch and a walk; the first batter came around to score on Liberatore's second wild pitch of the inning. The 6-foot-5 left-hander settled in after that, however, as he closed the second inning with a swinging strikeout, fanned three more batters (one on a dropped third strike) in the third inning and then struck out the side in order in the fourth. He added another strikeout in the subsequent frame, and then tallied a pair of swinging strikeouts as part of a perfect sixth inning.
"The first two innings, I was 2-0, 3-0 on almost every batter, and after that I was almost first-pitch strike to every batter. I think it made [Trinity] think a lot more and helped me throw pitches out of the zone I knew they'd fish at," said Liberatore, an Arizona commit.
While reports from Liberatore's early outings this spring had him up to 97 mph with his fastball, he operated consistently in the 88-92 mph range, while topping out at 93, on Wednesday. His fastball command was off early in the game, as he at times rushed his delivery and arm action, but it steadily improved as the game progressed, with Liberatore showing the ability to locate his heater down in the zone and avoid hard contact in the later innings.
Liberatore's feel for his sharp downer curveball at 74-75 mph also lacked consistency at the outset of his start, though like his fastball, it improved drastically as he established better rhythm and pitched deeper into the game. He still generated the bulk of his whiffs with the pitch, all while showing the ability to throw the pitch for a strike and then bury it in the dirt when ahead in the count.
Video: Liberatore discusses his scoreless start at NHSI
"I felt really good warming up, felt like the ball was jumping out of my hand," Liberatore said. "After the second inning, my coach sat me down and had me go through some breathing exercises, and that next inning I went out there and tried to slow my tempo and gather myself a little more before I started to drive down the mound, and things started clicking for me."
With Liberatore locked in on the mound, Mountain Ridge's offense began to chip away at its early deficit, pushing across a run in the third inning and then tying the game in the sixth on designated hitter Brock Peery's RBI single to left field.
The two teams remained tied, 2-2, through eight innings before Mountain Ridge's offense came alive in earnest to score twice in the top of the ninth. Shortstop Travis Warinner delivered the go-ahead hit in the frame when he connected on a long run-scoring single to the wall in left field, while first baseman Jack Dieckman provided the Mountain Lions with a key insurance run with a one-out sacrifice fly to left field.
It proved more than enough for sophomore right-hander Zach Rogers, who, after tossing a scoreless eighth inning, pitched around a two-out infield single in the ninth to secure the extra-inning victory in the tournament-opening contest.
"We had some opportunities early where we didn't execute," said Mountain Ridge head coach Artie Cox, "but we stayed within ourselves and executed there at the end. It was nice to see."
Pacing the Mountain Lions' offense with a 3-for-4 performance was senior third baseman Luke Blachut, while Peery, a sophomore, and senior Jaren Kampf both tallied two knocks. Senior outfielder Jake Robson also had a solid game, scoring two runs in a 1-for-3 performance.
"With [Matt] pitching, we know he's going to do his job," noted Blachut, "so it's just up to us to do our job -- get some hits, runs and come through in the clutch like we did today."
Green Hope 7, Walton 1
Any pressure that Liam Norris might have felt Wednesday night playing under the lights in front of a hometown crowd certainly didn't show, as the Green Hope (Cary, N.C.) High sophomore excelled on both sides of the ball to lead the Falcons past Walton (Marietta, Ga.) High, 7-1, at Coleman Field in the opening round of the 2018 NHSI.
Taking the mound in the tournament-opening game, Norris, a North Carolina commit, overcame a shaky first inning to turn in an eye-opening outing that surely put him on scouts' radars for the 2020 Draft. The 6-foot-4 left-hander kept Walton out of the hit column for the first 3 1/3 innings en route to allowing one run and just two hits over six strong innings. He struck out nine batters and walked four in the performance, throwing 65 of his 103 pitches for strikes.
"I think on the first pitch -- I threw it about five feet over the catcher," said Norris, who sat in the upper 80s and reached 92 mph with his fastball, while also showing feel for a mid-70s breaking ball. "The crowd shook me a little bit, but my teammates helped me zone in, made some great plays out there and helped me find the zone again."
Norris aided his success on the mound with a strong offensive showing, as the left-handed hitter finished 3-for-3 with two RBIs. His first knock, a one-out single in the second inning, ignited a four-run Falcons outburst, and Norris provided himself with additional run support with RBI singles in the two subsequent frames.
"Putting up runs that early helped me get into cruise control, and I just did my best to keep them off balance, keep them off base and off the board," said Norris.
"Once he had the lead, he knew he could be a bulldog and just go after them," said Green Hope head coach Michael Miragliuolo about his starter. "He threw his breaking ball for a strike just enough to keep guys off balance, and obviously it's a good fastball with movement."
John Curtis 2, Hanover 0
Senior right-hander Ian Landreneau scattered five hits over six scoreless innings to lead John Curtis in an opening-round win on Wednesday morning. The Mississippi Gulf Coast CC commit threw 47 of his 72 pitches for strikes in the outing, issuing one walk and striking out five while generating another nine outs on the ground. Senior shortstop Brandon Davis reached base three times out of the leadoff spot for the Louisiana-based program, finishing 2-for-2 with a double, a walk and one run scored.
George Jenkins 2, Mount Carmel 1
The first extra-inning game of the event saw George Jenkins (Lakeland, Fla.) High push across the game-winning run in the top of the ninth when senior Brandt Sundean plated Florida State commit Brandon Howlett with a fielder's choice to first base. The two players finished with three hits and three walks, respectively. Jenkins starting pitcher Daniel Batcher, a junior left-hander who is committed to West Virginia, was sharp in a no-decision as he allowed one unearned run on four hits while striking out 10 batters in seven innings.
Orange Lutheran 9, Florence 0
Pitching in front of a horde of scouts at Coleman Field, MLB Pipeline No. 42 overall Draft prospect Cole Winn improved his stock by tossing six scoreless innings of one-hit ball -- the lone hit was an infield single -- while outdueling Florence High's Cole Henry. He posted nine strikeouts against two walks and induced seven ground-ball outs, throwing 56 of his 76 pitches for strikes (73.7 percent). The 6-foot-2 right-hander and Mississippi State commit impressed with his feel for commanding his 92-93 mph fastball to both sides of the plate and did so while holding that velocity for the duration of the outing. His mid-70s curveball was equally impressive, as Winn showed he could throw it for strikes and also take it out of the zone when vying for whiffs. San Diego commit Caleb Ricketts tallied a hit and two RBIs for Lutheran, the 2017 NHSI champions, while sophomore Max Rajcic, a UCLA commit, finished 2-for-4 with a double and two RBIs.
Video: Dani Wexelman interviews RHP Cole Winn
American Heritage 1, Santiago 0
Sophomore outfielder Matt Ruiz's game-winning RBI double in the top of the seventh inning was one of just three hits collected by Heritage (Plantation, Fla.) in a game that featured four total hits between the two teams. Heritage starting pitcher Ryan Cabarcas, a junior southpaw committed to Florida, limited Santiago (Corona, Calif.) to one hit over six innings, and sophomore Jordan Carrion, another Florida commit, worked a scoreless seventh to notch the save.
Calvary Christian 4, Hattiesburg 1
A pair of Florida-committed seniors led Calvary Christian (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) to an opening-round victory, as third baseman Roberto Pena recorded two doubles and two RBIs to back Christian Scott's complete-game effort on the mound. Throwing 102 pitches (71 strikes) over seven dominant innings, Scott, a 6-foot-4 right-hander, allowed one unearned run on just three hits while striking out nine.
Sandra Day O'Connor 4, Mater Dei 0
No. 4 overall Draft prospect and Arizona commit Nolan Gorman plated the first of two first-inning runs as Sandra Day O'Connor (Phoenix) blanked two-time NHSI champion Mater Dei (2012-13). He also scored two runs in the contest, as did leadoff man Jayce Easley, a switch-hitting infielder who's committed to Oregon State. On the mound for Sandra Day, Cal Lambert needed only 91 pitches (53 strikes) to complete a four-hit shutout. The junior left-hander hit three batters, walked one and struck out a pair in the performance.
Thursday's schedule (all times Eastern)
Mount Carmel vs. Florence, 9:30 a.m. (Consolation)
Sandra Day O'Connor vs. Calvary Christian, 10:30 a.m. (Second round)
Hanover vs. Santiago, 11:30 a.m. (Consolation)
George Jenkins vs. Orange Lutheran, 12:30 p.m. (Second round)
John Curtis vs. American Heritage, 1:30 p.m. (Second round)
Mater Dei vs. Hattiesburg, 2:30 p.m. (Consolation)
Walton vs. Trinity Prep, 3:30 p.m. (Consolation)
Green Hope vs. Mountain Ridge, 4:30 p.m. (Second round)
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB Pipeline. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.