Tournaments : : Story
Monday, July 03, 2017

Battery of Gators key to success

Steven Walters        
Photo: Perfect Game

ATLANTA, Ga. – If you have followed the Central Florida Gators over the past few years, you’d notice that the team has remained basically the same. Much of their success begins with the battery of the team, which includes pitchers Carter Stewart and Matthew Liberatore and catcher Mason Denaburg, all of whom have been with the team since at-least 15 years old.

“We’ve had the majority of them since they were 8 and 9 years old,” said coach Mark Roberts. “So, getting to go from basically kids to young men has been really fun and exciting. To see them progress to the players is really exciting.”

That time together has allowed the team to be more than a collection of talent, they are the true definition of a team. They have placed third or better in six events since 2014, including a national championship at the 16u PG World Series. Every single one of the players recognized the team first attitude that they say has been a vital part of their success.

“A lot of big name travel teams out here will just fly in guys for a weekend or an event, but a lot of us have been playing for multiple years together, so I think that bond helps the atmosphere in the dugout be not so selfish and ‘I’m here for myself to get exposure,’” Liberatore said. “We actually care about each other and the team and getting wins instead of just getting our names out there.”

Although each of them comes together as a team, each brings a unique talent to the organization. Stewart, the No. 17 ranked player in the class of 2018, features a fastball that touches 92 mph to go along with a wicked breaking ball. The righty is a physical presence on the mound, listed at 6-foot-6, 200-pounds. Stewart shows great poise on the mound and said that he tries not to let things phase him. Roberts used one word to describe the Mississippi State commit; “Competitor.”

“He’s very quiet in nature, but you can see the bigger the situation, the better player he is,” Roberts said. “He doesn’t shy away from the bigger games. He gets out, competes, challenges hitters, trusts his stuff and just battles. He always gives us a very solid outing every time he’s on the mound.”

Liberatore, although listed at 6-foot-5, 200-pounds, a similar stature as Stewart, is more of an intimidating presence on the mound. The lefty runs his fastball up to 92 mph as well and shows an advanced feel for pitching for his age, garnering him a commitment to Arizona. A native of Peoria, Ariz., Liberatore checks in at No. 41 overall on Perfect Game’s list of 2018 graduates, and is no stranger to performing on the big stage.

“Matthew’s been our biggest game pitcher for the last three years. Typically, he’s somebody that we try to save and hold back for a big game just because he’s got great pitchability, controls both sides of the plate, all four quadrants, throws any pitch at any time for a strike. He’s probably the most competitive guy on the team,” Roberts said.

Behind the plate for the two is Mason Denaburg, who is the 13th ranked player in the class of 2018. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound catcher possesses good hands behind the plate in addition to good leadership skills. Both Liberatore and Stewart expressed that he is a positive influence on them when he is behind the plate.

“You’re not worried about guys stealing bases because he has an absolute cannon,” Liberatore said about Denaburg. “Super smart baseball guy, really high baseball IQ, just knows situational baseball. Smart guy, so I love it.”

“He has just sort of a different demeanor back there. You can tell that he’s going to be good and he’s going to do the best he can to help you look your best. He catches well, he has a great arm. It’s just great having him back there,” Stewart said.

Denaburg will look to continue his career as a Gator in the years to come, committing to the University of Florida. He will be an intriguing player to watch over the next few years because he also throws 97 mph on the mound. Either way, Florida will receive another talented homegrown player.

“I’ve always grown up just wanting to be a Gator,” Denaburg said. “I love Florida and it’s been my dream school ever since I was like 5 years old, and that’s the only school I’ve ever wanted to go to.”

All three players have been named to the Perfect Game All-American Classic watch list because of their talents. Two others on the team were also named to the list including Nolan Gorman and Elijah Cabell.

“It’s always been a dream of ours,” Denaburg said about playing in the Classic. “We’ve all always talked about it, because we’ve played in these events since we were like 13 or 14. We’ve always just watched those events and been like ‘Wow, that’d be really cool to make it to that one day, and see if we can do it.’ Hopefully they pick us.”

Stewart’s recent performance at PG National really increased his stock of late, which seemed to be a factor in his nomination. He said he did not attend as many Perfect Game events as the others around him, and was somewhat surprised at the call.

“It was pretty awesome because really, I haven’t done any huge events, any huge showcases and stuff like that,” Stewart said. “Just going to Perfect Game National and performing and them wanting me to come and just even thinking about me really was an honor in a way and really excites me.”

Liberatore was also notified at PG National, a moment that he said is something he will never forget.

“It was actually pretty unreal when they pulled us down into the little clubhouse on the third base side. Me and my dad were in there and Daron Sutton [director of media for Perfect Game] was talking to us, and we watched the video with Justin Upton. We both looked at each other and smiled. It felt surreal,” Liberatore said. “It didn’t feel like it was happening, and it was really cool to think that I made it this far and all the hard work’s finally paying off.”

Having one player named to the list is an honor, but having five is something special. Roberts said that although they were all named to the list, they still keep that team-first mentality, supporting each no matter who ends up being selected. He went on to say that they received the honors, not because they performed well in one aspect of their game, but because they are complete baseball players.

“It’s an honor to have five of those guys on the watch list,” Roberts said. “I’m just so happy for the players because they work hard,” Roberts said. “They root for each other, regardless of if one of those guys was going to get bumped for the other, they wouldn’t root against each other, and that’s been really exciting for us to watch them play as a team.”

That team mentality has been working as they are off to another hot start in a PG tournament, compiling a 3-0 record in the 17u WWBA National Championship in Georgia. Stewart took the mound for the Gators on Monday morning against the CBA Rays 2018, throwing five innings, giving up five hits and one earned run, while striking out eight. Denaburg picked up a hit and a walk in four plate appearances, and scored one of the team’s three runs as they won by a score of 3-2.

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