Liberty rides its outstanding pitching staff to an unbeaten record and No. 2 state ranking

Perhaps the first week of baseball competition could have gone better for Liberty.

It’s difficult to imagine how, though. by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: AMANDA MILES - Liberty senior Kevin Lave delivers a pitch during a 2-1, non-conference victory over Hillsboro last Friday.

Starting last Monday, the Falcons played five games in eight days — including four contests against Pacific Conference foes — and beat all comers. And three of those victories came at the expense of city rivals Glencoe (4-1), Hilhi (2-1) and Century (9-5).

Liberty also downed McMinnville 8-2 and Interlake of Bellevue, Wash., 2-0 on Saturday.

“We’re feeling very good,” Liberty coach Jackson Gillett said. “We’re excited. It gives us some momentum going down to San Diego, so instead of kind of being fearful of some of the big teams we’re going to play, our kids are pretty pumped.”

The Falcons, ranked No. 2 in the OSAA’s Class 5A power rankings as of Tuesday, got particularly stiff tests in the Hillsboro and Interlake games.

In the game against Hilhi at Hare Field, both teams seemed in far better than early-season form in a tightly waged contest. Liberty got a run in the first inning and another in the fifth before Hilhi’s Stefanos Panayiotou hit a solo home run in the sixth to round out the scoring.

Liberty’s Kevin Lave pitched all seven innings, throwing 10 strikeouts and scattering three hits and a walk. Chase Kaplan was equally challenging on the mound for the Spartans, recording 11 strikeouts and allowing just three hits of his own in five innings.

The Falcons’ first run came off a double by Dakota Drake, which scored Kyle Rose from second base. The run that turned out to be the game-winner came courtesy of a balk by Caplan. A balk provides that baserunners advance one base each, so Caplan’s balk brought home Kevin Batke from third.

“I think Chase Kaplan’s one of the better pitchers in the state of Oregon,” Gillett said. “And I think Kevin Lave, our guy, is right up there too. It was exciting to be part of a game like that. Great defense on both sides, great pitching on both sides. I think Hillsboro’s going to be outstanding.”

Liberty demonstrated its depth at the pitching position and Ryan Kaser got to play the hero both with his bat and on the mound in the Interlake game, the first varsity start for the sophomore.

Kaser struck out eight batters in five innings and combined with senior Zach Chitwood to throw a no-hitter against the Saints. Kaser also notched a two-run single in the second inning to account for the only offense in the game.

“This is the first time I can say in my time at Liberty that I felt pitching was the strength of our team,” Gillett said. “We have five senior pitchers right now, so I kind of felt like these guys would be able to get it done, they would be outstanding, and they’re really knocking it out of the park on the hill.”

Drake picked up two of Liberty’s other three wins, against Glencoe and Century.

The Falcons will get to test themselves in San Diego over spring break against some California opponents in the 63rd annual Lions Invitational Baseball Tournament, which bills itself as the largest and oldest high school baseball tournament in the country.

Competing in Division 3, the Falcons have games scheduled against California programs Mater Dei, Horizon and Kearny on successive days before facing an opponent yet to be determined on Thursday.

“When we go play teams in San Diego, it just feels like real baseball,” Gillett said. “We’re facing some top-level talent that it’ll certainly get us ready, and more importantly than anything — and not to sound corny — we want to take a trip and have fun and enjoy the game of baseball.”

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