The longest start of Matthew Liberatore's career also may have been his best.
The fifth-ranked Rays prospect recorded a career-high nine strikeouts while allowing three hits and a walk over seven scoreless innings Saturday, leading the way as Class A Bowling Green beat Lansing, 7-1.
Video: Hot Rods' Liberatore's ninth K
It was the first time Liberatore (5-0) pitched into the seventh inning as a pro, and marked his third scoreless outing this season. It was certainly a start to remember for the 19-year-old, and according to Hot Rods pitching coach Brian Reith, the finest he's had all season.
"That's probably the best that we've seen him," he said. "He was able to command his fastball pretty well tonight, that's really huge for him. And he was able to mix in that slider; the slider was really good tonight as well."
Gameday box score
Liberatore took the mound with a 4-0 lead and faced the minimum through five frames, yielding just a leadoff single before retiring the next 14 Lugnuts.
He got into a bit of trouble in the sixth, as singles from LJ Talley and Luis De Los Santos and a wild pitch put runners on second and third with one out. The left-hander locked in though, striking out Reggie Pruitt and getting Nick Podkul to fly out to right to escape with the zero still on the board.
Liberatore found himself in a similar pickle in the seventh, as he struck out leadoff batter and Blue Jays No. 15 prospect Griffin Conine but let him reach on a wild pitch. Then he walked Jake Brodt to put two on with nobody out. But after a mound visit, he again buckled down, getting a groundout and a pair of strikeouts -- including his career-high ninth -- to end the inning.
While Reith certainly would've rather Liberatore handle that final frame with the ease exhibited in earlier innings, he was nevertheless happy to see him work his way out of the jam.
"He was able to lock it in after that, and it was great to see," Reith said. "First and second, nobody out -- tough situation. He was able to regain his focus and make pitches when he needed to, to get out of it."
Dealing with situations like those would be tough for almost anyone as inexperienced as Liberatore, but as Reith sees it, his ability to do so speaks volumes to his makeup as a pitcher.
"It's a good sign of maturity," he said. "And he's very mature for his age. He was a high-school draftee. Well beyond his years [in] his knowledge and maturity on the baseball field, so that was good to see."
2019 MiLB include
MLB.com's No. 46 overall prospect has a 1.85 ERA through six starts -- a mark that would be tops in the Midwest League if he qualified -- and has struck out 32 batters over 34 innings. Last season, he posted a 1.38 ERA in nine starts between the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Rookie Advanced Princeton.
As he continues to put more appearances under his belt, the focus is to continue building on his early success. The momentum he's generated is built on what was showcased against the Lugnuts: control of the fastball.
"For him, we talk a lot about it, is fastball command," Reith said. "He has a tendency to lose a lot of pitches out of the zone on the fastball. For him to be successful, he really needs to command that fastball. Everything works so well off of that when he does have that fastball command. ... He's improving with that, and I think he needs to continue to improve with that to have success moving forward."