Many kids grow up dreaming of becoming a professional athlete. They talk about it with their buddies and imagine just how cool that would be. Well, for Mountain Ridge senior left-handed pitcher Matthew Liberatore and Sandra Day O’Connor senior third baseman Nolan Gorman, those dreams are on the verge of becoming a reality on June 4th, when Major League Baseball holds its amateur draft.
Liberatore and Gorman, who live five minutes apart, have been best friends since they were 5 years old when they played on the same tee ball team. They have been teammates on club and travel teams for almost every year since. When the boys were 12 years old, they played in front of 5,000 fans in Cooperstown, New York, which is home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Both players are projected to be first round draft picks in the upcoming draft, and some baseball analysts think they will be selected in the top 10 overall. “That would be awesome. That’s something we’ve talked about since we were little kids. Obviously, when you’re younger every kid wants to play in MLB. To be able to make it this far, and actually have that opportunity, at least to play professional baseball, is something pretty special. It has kind of given us a bond that you can’t trade for anything.” Liberatore said.
The pair could make Arizona history along the way. The state has never had two high school players selected in the first round of the same draft. “That (would be) pretty special obviously, and then having it be my best friend that I have grown up with. It’s exciting and it’s just good to see how far he’s come, and I know he is proud of me. We kind of push each other back and forth. That’s always kind of been what we do.” Gorman said.
The 6’5″ 200 pound Liberatore, has a record of 5-1 on the season with a 0.87 ERA, and 74 strikeouts in 40.1 innings pitched. He recorded 17 strikeouts in a game earlier this year, and his fastball is consistently in the mid 90’s. “He’s always had the curveball which has been a special curveball. It’s a lot like (L.A. Dodgers pitcher) Clayton Kershaw’s. He’s developed his fastball. Those are his two best pitches. He’s developed a change-up which is really good now. And this last off season he’s developed a slider that adds to the whole thing. We sit and watch that, and it’s not even fair. He can command all four pitches and that’s what makes it all so special.” Mountain Ridge head coach Artie Cox said.
The 6’1″ 210 pound Gorman, has a .406 batting average, with 9 home runs and 29 rbi’s in 26 games. Gorman smashed 11 hr’s last season, and last summer won two national high school home run derbies, including one at the MLB All Star game in Miami front of 50,000 fans. “God just gave him certain gifts that he didn’t give to others. His power his impressive. The first time I knew that he was “the guy”, we were playing at Sunnyslope and the wind is blowing in one of those windy Arizona days. I literally tell the team, guys stay within yourselves today because nobody is hitting the ball out of here. He’s a sophomore and he, just on a laser, crushed that thing out. Day in and day out there’s something different that he’s just able to do, that you think it’s just impossible for a high school kid to do that, but he does. He’s on a different level out there.” Sandra Day O’Connor head coach Jeff Baumgartner said.
Gorman and Liberatore are both lauded for being great teammates, having strong work ethics, and an ability to perform at a high level under intense scrutiny. “First game this season we had over 100 scouts here, and the way he (Liberatore) handled that was really impressive. It really doesn’t seem to faze him that much.” Cox said. Liberatore adds, “it’s been pretty cool to see them in the stands and have meetings with them. (They’ve talked to) all of my coaches and previous coaches. They’ve talked to some people at games. I had one team look in my bedroom and look around and see if I had anything in there. It’s pretty in depth and pretty detailed.” The circus like atmosphere has been similar for Gorman. “At a game we had close to 70 (scouts and front office types) just at batting practice. They’re lined down from the dugout, just 70 guys watching and drooling. It’s a spectacle in the sense that they’re not shy about who they are here to see. And when he takes his last pitch, 70 dudes go walking out of here.” Baumgartner said.
Both players, who are committed to the University of Arizona, are thankful to have one another to lean on as they go through this process together. “It’s kind of cool to have that. With him being my best friend we can talk to each other about anything that’s on our minds and we do that. We talk every day so we definitely bounce stuff off one another.” Gorman said. Liberatore adds, “it’s been super helpful to have him in that position as well as me. One I can talk to him about that stuff, but I think even bigger than that he’s someone that I can hang out with that we don’t have to talk about that stuff. We can go and be normal teenagers, but we both know at the end of the day the position we are in.”
Liberatore enjoys watching flame throwing pitcher Aroldis Chapman, who plays for his favorite team, the New York Yankees. Gorman, a New York Mets fan, was named after legendary power pitcher Nolan Ryan. The O’Connor senior also shares a name with his favorite player, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado.
In the last 3 seasons, Liberatore and Gorman have faced each other in 3 games, including this past Thursday in a packed stadium at Grand Canyon University. Gorman has two hits and has struck out 5 times in 9 at bats against Liberatore. “Everything just kind of stops. I walk up to the plate and he, I don’t know if he gives me a little grin or what, but it’s always just fun. I’ve been behind him all of these years, so I’ve seen how he attacks hitters. He’s aggressive and he’s one of those pitchers that has a bulldog mentality, so I know that going into it and I just try to match his intensity and hope good things happen.” Gorman said. Liberatore adds, “It’s awesome. I’ve loved playing with him all of these years. He’s a great glove to have behind me, but to be on the opposite side of the fence as him is a little bit different. Its been fun competing against him, and I think we both try and have fun with it.”
Both players cite winning the gold medal in September at the 18U World Baseball Cup in Ontario, Canada as part of Team USA as the highlight of their careers so far. That team was led by Grand Canyon University head coach Andy Stankiewicz. “You play wearing Team USA across your chest, it’s just unbelievable. Then to go out there and face the best competition, and go perfect against the whole world, and kind of have that dream team as we had been called, is just surreal.” Gorman said. In the gold medal game against South Korea, Gorman went 2-3 with an rbi while Liberatore threw 6 shutout innings. “It was a showcase event where a lot of really good players got together and competed. USA did a really good job of picking not only high talent guys, but also high character guys, and it made it really easy to click with them in the short amount of time that we had.”
Liberatore and Gorman are currently trying to lead their respective teams to state championships as they wrap up their high school careers, but after that their attention turns to where their next stop will be. “That depends on what happens in a couple of months. If it’s U of A, I’m happy to play for Coach Johnson and try and win a national championship. If it happens to be the draft, then I’m more than ready I think to be at that level if the situation is right.” Liberatore said. Gorman adds, “the way I go about it is the draft is only one day in becoming who you want to be. Ultimately the goal is to become a major league baseball player, whether it’s starting it now or starting it 3 years from now out of the U of A.” Gorman said.
Either way, the two friends who used to play wiffle ball in the backyard fantasizing about their futures, will soon be playing on a different field of dreams.