CHICAGO — When he was last at Wrigley Field in 2017 for the Under Armour All-America Game, a then-17-year-old Matthew Liberatore proved himself to be one of the top pitching prospects in the nation by striking out five of the 10 batters he faced to win MVP honors.
Back on that same mound on Thursday, but facing significantly better hitters, Liberatore’s command was nowhere near as good, and the Cubs made him pay for repeatedly leaving pitches out over the plate.
Willson Contreras, Frank Schwindel and Ian Happ hit 1,227 feet of home runs off the Cardinals’ rookie left-hander in the first four innings of the Cardinals’ 7-5 loss at Wrigley Field.
To Contreras, Liberatore meant to bounce an 0-2 curveball, but instead left it in the middle of the plate and the Cubs slugger pounded it 369 feet. To Schwindel, Liberatore’s 87.8 mph changeup drifted back and Chicago’s clean-up hitter drilled it 436 feet halfway up the bleachers in left-center. Happ ambushed the Cardinals rookie, hitting a get-me-over 90.8 mph fastball another 422 feet.
The lesson for the 22-year-old Liberatore? Location matters much more at the MLB level than it did when he spent the past season-and-a-half at Triple-A Memphis.
“At Triple-A, a lot of those 2-0 pitches that I made don’t get hit for home runs and here they do,” said Liberatore, who is clearly still a work in progress after making just his third MLB start. “You definitely have to be more fine, execute and get ahead in counts.”
Liberatore’s struggles — he surrendered six hits and four runs over 3 1/3 innings — could have been uglier had reliever Nick Wittgren not come in and worked out of a bases-loaded jam. Wittgren, who got the final out of Wednesday’s win, got Contreras to foul out and Patrick Wisdom to ground out to end the fourth. He said even though the Cardinals’ top left-handed prospect struggled on Thursday, there are plenty of lessons to learn from the night.
“I think it’s more about conviction than location,” said Wittgren, referring to Liberatore’s stuff being good enough to play at the MLB level. “When you are convicted with a pitch and you want to throw it in a certain spot, if you’re fully convicted, it’s easier to throw it there. … It’s a combination of location and being convicted behind the pitch.”
Liberatore, a Phoenix-area native who picked up his first MLB win last Saturday against Milwaukee, said he had memories from the 2017 All-America Game flooding back to him once he looked around the Wrigley Field grandstands on Thursday. However, he refused to believe that his first indoctrination into the always electric Cards-Cubs rivalry bothered him or the stage was too big.
“It was pretty similar to when I pitched here in 2017, but with different hitters and a little bit better hitters than I faced last time,” joked Liberatore, who threw 80 pitches, but just 42 for strikes. “It felt very similar. I warmed up in the same bullpen and played catch the same way. So, nothing too drastic that threw me off.”
Liberatore’s childhood friend and roommate for that Wrigley Field debut in 2017, Nolan Gorman, wasn’t in the Cardinals lineup on Thursday. However, he is expected back on Friday after working his way through lower back stiffness. Gorman, who hit his first MLB homer on the same day when Liberatore garnered his first MLB win, recalled that first trip to Wrigley Field being a big one for him and his close friend. Whereas Liberatore won the MVP award that day, Gorman captured the Home Run Derby, and he had a familiar face there to greet him.
“Libby was mainly just fastball, curveball that day and he shut everybody down,” Gorman recalled. “That [HR Derby] was fun. I got a bunch of Gatorade and water thrown on me and Libby was right there to give me a big hug.”
After a so-so MLB debut where he failed to last five innings, Liberatore rebounded nicely a week later and limited the Brewers to just two hits to nab the victory. He said he’ll use Thursday’s struggles to work on his location so that he’s better when he pitches again in five days.
“[Location] is everything for me right now,” he said. “It’s you versus you out there and it’s about your ability to execute pitches. I didn’t do that today. I know what I need to work on and it’ll be worked on. If you walk away and view it as a failure, then it is one. I’ll take it as a learning experience.”