Liberty rallies in 7th to beat Tulare Western in baseball playoff opener

Despite Liberty earning the No. 2 seed for the CIF Central Section Division I baseball playoffs, Patriots coach Tony Mills knew his team wasn’t given an easy first-round matchup against No. 15 Tulare Western.

Armed with UCLA signee Justin Cuellar, the Mustangs were nearly unbeatable when he pitched this season, and that’s whom Liberty had to face Tuesday.

As things turned out, Cuellar was as good as advertised, but the Patriots once again showed the determination and competitiveness that makes them a serious contender to win a section championship by rallying to beat Western 3-2 on a bases-loaded walk to Davis Goodwin in the seventh inning.

“I have to tip my cap to Tulare Western,” Mills said. “Cuellar, their pitcher, he’s phenomenal. He can beat anybody. But my guys have some backbone. We reared our head. We competed all day long against a very good pitcher and we found a way to win the game.”

Next, Liberty will host No. 7 Stockdale, a 6-2 winner over No. 10 Fresno-Central, in the quarterfinals on Thursday.

With Liberty (26-4) trailing 2-1 entering the bottom of the seventh, Cuellar hit the first batter, Nick Martin, in the back with an errant pitch. That misfire put the talented lefty over the CIF pitchcount limit rule, so he was pulled in favor of William Masterson.

The 6-foot-2-inch, 190-pound sophomore, who played most of the game at shortstop, struck out the first batter he faced on a wild pitch that allowed Martin to advance to second base.

Moments later a balk was called on Masterson, which moved Martin to third.

Sensing the game was finally turning in the Patriots’ favor, the large contingent of Liberty fans then watched Brock Thompson drill a linedrive single to left field to tie the game.

Grant Voss followed with a long single to left, and after an intentional walk to Brady Baird, Liberty had bases loaded with one out and Goodwin at bat. After falling behind 1-2 in the count, the senior watched Masterson throw him three straight balls, the last of which triggered a run-scoring walk to end the game.

The Patriots would have never been in the position for their dramatic comeback win if not for an outstanding performance on the mound by Evan Churchman, who pitched a complete game for the victory.

Churchman allowed two runs in the second inning on a double by Ty Rhyman, but otherwise matched Cuellar’s effectiveness on the mound.

The pinpoint-accurate

Churchman scattered six hits while issuing no walks and had five strikeouts as he improved to 10-2.

“I knew coming in this team was going to be good, but I knew our team was going to fight no matter who was on the mound,” Churchman said. “We just came in there and did our thing. I knew if I shut them down we were going to win.”

Cuellar gave up two hits in six-plus innings but had four walks and two hit batters. He also had six strikeouts.

Goodwin had both hits Cuellar allowed. In the first inning, he gave Liberty a 1-0 lead with a double in the left-center field gap.

The lead was short-lived, and Tulare Western (15-15) held a 2-1 advantage for most of the game. It looked like the Mustangs might pull the upset until Liberty’s dramatic turn at bat.

Goodwin said he and his teammates were confident that they would find a way to pull out the victory.

“We’ve been in that position before,” he said. “We’ve been in close games. Just any other game. Just any other at-bat. Just doing what I do, I guess.”

Mills also never lost faith in his team’s ability to rally and win the game.

“One thing this team has done all year long is when some people think we’re down and out in the ball game, we just find way,” Mills said. “That just shows character and work ethic and the love they have for each other. We have a special bond, and I’m pumped we get to practice on Wednesday.” Source: The Bakersfield Californian