When a team scores double-digit runs, the contributions of its starting pitcher can easily be overlooked.
Liberal right-hander Paul Gonzalez did anything but blend in Thursday. Shaking off struggles during the middle innings, Gonzalez had a strong finish after the BeeJays hitters gave him a big lead. Liberal advanced to tonight's championship game of the National Baseball Congress World Series with a 10-2 win over Denver at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
The game ended after seven innings because of a run rule and the win put Liberal in the title game against the winner of Thursday's second semifinal between Seattle and Santa Barbara (Calif.).
"Paul's been solid for us all year," said Blake Bergeron, one of Liberal's many offensive stars. "He'll go out there and throw all of his pitches for strikes. It usually helps us out whenever he's pitching."
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Liberal led 2-0 going into the third, when Gonzalez faced adversity for the first time.
Denver had problems with the game's simple aspects in the first, as one Liberal run scored on a wild pitch and starting pitcher Shane Weldon hit a batter to put two runners on for Richard Bohlken.
Weldon got Bohlken to fly lazily to right field, but miscommunication between second baseman Jordan Price and right fielder Andrew Riddock allowed the ball to drop and a run to score.
"When you give teams like that extra chances, they're going to make you pay," Denver manager Stefan McGovern said. "That's what happened. We missed a couple fly balls that shouldn't have been caught. Those situations come up, and good teams will put you away for missing those."
Denver's No. 8 hitter Logan Moore led off the third with a home run on a full count, one of few mistakes by Gonzalez. He didn't let the problems escalate, though, retiring three of the following four hitters and keeping the lead.
"I don't like giving up home runs, it gets me mad," Gonzalez said. "It got out, but you've just got to brush it off and go on to the next hitter."
The teams traded runs in the fourth as Liberal took a 4-2 lead.
After Kelby Tomlinson started the bottom of the fifth with a groundout, the next eight Liberal batters had either a hit, a walk or an RBI. Bergeron homered to left on a 1-1 pitch, and Weldon exited after the next two batters reached base.
The BeeJays kept hitting against Denver's bullpen, as Bohlken, Sam Konoff, David Masters and Nick Cocking had consecutive singles before Edwin Arroyo capped a six-run inning with an RBI groundout. Liberal was six outs away from a run-rule win, which it eventually got.
Liberal hadn't been held under seven runs in five games before being shutout by Seattle on Wednesday. The offense resumed the hot hitting to put Liberal in its first title game since it won the tournament in 2000.
"(Wednesday) night we really didn't put it all together," Bergeron said. "We had some errors and we really weren't swinging the bats like we should have. Today I think we were a little bit anxious and we were ready to come out swinging."
With Gonzalez on the mound, Liberal's big lead was in no danger. He retired the final 10 batters he faced and had five of his seven strikeouts after the fourth inning. He earned a complete game victory but he wasn't ready to stop pitching.
"I had no idea we were doing a run-rule," Gonzalez said. "I looked at (catcher David Masters) when he came out to shake my hand and I was like, 'Are you serious, that's it?' I was ready to go nine. But it's great to get a complete game, I love it. I love getting the win and I love going to the championship game."