No fibbing here; I was stunned by what Matthew Liberatore did to the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday night.
I did not expect to see the tall lefty deliver eight shutout innings while throwing high-velocity darts. I did not expect to see Libby scratched for only two singles without walking a soul.
I did not expect to see Liberatore punch up seven strikeouts. I did not expect him to dominate a Tampa Bay lineup that was stacked with nine right-handed hitters in an obvious attempt to attack his most glaring weakness.
Before Thursday’s gemstone of a start, RH batters had assaulted Liberatore this season for a .339 average, .548 slug and .962 OPS – with 43 percent of their hits smashed for extra bases. And he had struck righties out only 12.4 percent of the time. But in the confrontation with Tampa Bay’s right-handed hitters, Liberatore retired 23 of the 25 who entered the batter’s box, did not grant them an extra-base hit, and struck ‘em out at a rate of 28 percent.
I did not expect to see Liberatore go on to own the Rays after they’d tested him during a laborious 26-pitch first inning. The home team had an early chance to crack Liberatore but he didn’t capitulate. After that, the Rays went 1 for 21, struck out six times, and had one baserunner over Libby’s final seven innings. The one hit during the seven-inning stretch was a fourth-inning single by Wander Franco — and Liberatore erased him on a pickoff. Liberatore was all business. He wasn’t dabbling, procrastinating, or fooling around.
I did not expect Liberatore to average 94.3 mph on his 32 four-seam fastballs, and 95 mph on his 21 sinkers. (Those stats courtesy of MLB.com.) I did not expect to see him blowtorch the Rays for a MLB career-high 15 swings and misses.
Liberatore was removed after 101 pitches and had only three three-ball counts during his eight innings of bravo work.
Goodness, where did this come from?
Where has this been?
The Cardinals traded outfielder Randy Arozarena and DH-type Jose Martinez for Liberatore on Jan. 9, 2020. Until Thursday night, the transaction was shaping up as one of the worst trades in Cardinal franchise history.
I was up on Liberatore for his prospect pedigree that came with him being the 16th overall selection in the 2018 MLB draft. I encouraged patience as the gangly lefty began his minor-league apprenticeship with the Cardinals at age 21. He wasn’t ready in his MLB debut season (2022) but I was enthusiastic about Liberatore’s improvement at Triple A Memphis earlier this year. A successful early-season start – six scoreless innings in a win over the Brewers – was an encouraging indicator.
I campaigned for the Cardinals to put Liberatore in their rotation and keep him there. It was time. I thought he was ready to take a positive step and begin the process of paying off the trade debt that began piling up as soon as Arozarena commanded the big stage with an astonishing performance in the 2020 MLB postseason.
Before the brilliant start at Tampa Bay, Liberatore had a 6.47 big–league ERA in 72 and ⅓ innings. Every statistical marker was horrendous. He was a mess. He was a mistake. But he was also young and inexperienced. There was still a chance for Liberatore to prove the Cardinals weren’t insane for acquiring him for Arozarena.
The start at Tampa Bay was an adamant rebuttal from Liberatore. We saw evidence that his video work and intense weight-training program may be making a difference. We shall see.
As Arozarena told the Tampa Bay Times: “He was really locating his pitches really well. He threw a really great game, and he deserves the credit. He got into a nice rhythm those eight innings. … I think that might have been the best game he pitched all season.”
You can say that.
Here are some factoids on Liberatore’s breakthrough start at Tampa Bay. I’ll use the Game Score metric devised by the great Bill James – and is, in my opinion, a more relevant stat than the Quality Start.
* Libby’s Game Score at Tampa Bay was 85. That was the fifth–best game score by a left-handed major-league starter this season. Two of the top four game scores by LH starters belonged to Houston’s Framber Valdez, with Eduardo Rodriguez (Tigers) and Drew Smyly (Cubs) claiming the other two.
* Libby’s 85 Game Score represented the 20th-best start by a Cardinals’ lefty since 1985. The left-handed starters who posted a higher score over that time were John Tudor, Jaime Garcia, Bud Smith, Chuck Finley, Joe Magrane, Mark Mulder, Rheal Cormier, Darren Oliver and Jordan Montgomery. A few of them exceeded the 85 game score on multiple occasions.
* This was the best Game Score by a Cards’ lefty starter since Montgomery pitched a complete-game, one-hit shutout at Wrigley Field on Aug. 22, 2022. Monty had a 92 Game Score in that one.
* Since Tudor – the Cardinals Hall of Famer – pitched his last game for the Redbirds in 1990, Liberatore had the 12th-best Game Score by a St. Louis lefty since 1991. The superior game-score starts belonged to Garcia (five times), Montgomery, Bud Smith, Finley, Oliver, Cormier and Mulder.
* Liberatore’s 85 Game Score was the best by a STL lefty starter age 23 or younger since Bud Smith tossed a no-hitter at San Diego on Sept. 3, 2001. Smith walked four Padres in that game – meaning that he allowed four baserunners in 9 IP. Liberatore allowed only two baserunners in 8 IP.
* Going back to 1985, Liberatore is the only left-handed St. Louis starter age 23 or younger to allow just two baserunners in a start that lasted eight innings or longer. The only right-handed starter age 23 or younger to allow fewer than two baserunners in a start (minimum eight innings) was Shelby Miller on May 10, 2013. Miller gave up a leadoff single to Eric Young Jr. to start the game and retired 27 Rockies in order after that.
Liberatore had some extra motivation for his first encounter with the team that traded him away. That’s understandable. But I would have been pleased if he had pitched six innings and allowed three runs. Expectations were low. Really low. But Liberatore turned in one of the finest starts by a left-handed Cardinal pitcher over the last 30+ seasons, and the authoritative performance transcended any personal-inspiration factors.
This was just a great showcase of pitching by a young Cardinal against a Tampa Bay lineup that’s thrashed lefty starters all season.
Coming into Thursday’s game, left-handed starting pitchers had a 7.17 ERA and had been blitzed for a .901 OPS when facing the Rays in 2023. Before Liberatore put an 85 Game Score on the Rays, the best any lefty had done against them this season was Blake Snell (Padres) who crafted a 77 game score on June 17.
Liberatore finally demonstrated what he’s capable of doing, and now the standards will be raised. That’s OK. That’s as it should be. Perhaps we’ll look back on this start at Tampa Bay as the true beginning to Liberatore’s career as a Cardinal.
Wouldn’t that be nice? Sure, but he knows that he still has a lot to prove. Liberatore can only do it by making one start at a time and show that his terrific night at Tampa Bay was more than a fluke.
Thanks for reading …
Have a fantastic weekend …
Bernie hosts a weekday sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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The “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and B. Miklasz is available at 590thefan.com, the 590 the fan app or your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus or Bill James Online.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.