Churchman twins help Liberty clinch SYRL baseball title with 6-4 win at Frontier

The theme of the day was second chances on Tuesday afternoon at Frontier, and Liberty senior Caden Churchman made the most of his.

The extra opportunity came in the top of the fifth, four innings after Churchman blasted an apparent two-run homer over the left-field fence.

The initial round-tripper was nullified when umpires ruled Titans starter Brady Durkan had balked prior to the ill-fated pitch. According to high school rules, the pitch doesn't count, all runners advance one base and the batter is returned to the box. Churchman was notified of this call about the time he reached second base on his home run trot.

But with his team trailing 2-1, the Patriots’ designated hitter did one better in the fifth when it mattered most, launching a 1-0 offering from Durkan over the fence for a grand slam, sparking Liberty to a 6-4 victory that clinched the South Yosemite River League championship.

“It’s kind of neat to see him hit that grand slam after having one called back,” 18-year Patriots coach Tony Mills said. “That’s just the second time in my career that that’s happened. It could have been 3-0 in the top of the first and we could have kept adding on, but those are the rules and you have to play by the rules.”

The Patriots (21-4, 10-1) have won seven league baseball titles during Mills’ tenure at the school. This is his first outright championship since 2019.

“This was a good one because these guys are a special group,” Mills said. “They really work hard, they like each other, they play together, they have interchangeable pieces and in years past we’ve never really had that option.”

Liberty closes out league play at home against Frontier on Thursday, with games against Santa Maria-St. Joseph on Monday and two against Bakersfield High before playoff brackets are announced at the end of next week.

The Patriots have built plenty of momentum heading into that final run. Liberty has won nine straight and 11 of its last 12 games.

Churchman’s homer was one of three long balls for the Patriots, accounting for all six of their runs, all in support of his twin brother, Evan, who went the distance to improve to 9-2.

In the five-run fifth, Liberty made the most of two walks and a dropped fly ball in left field to set the table for Caden Churchman’s blast, which ended the day for Durkan. Tryce Spainhoward greeted Patriots reliever Mason Norris with a solo home run to build the lead to 6-2.

“Liberty’s a good-hitting team,” Frontier coach Brandon Boren said. “Brady Durkan grinded all game. We had that dropped fly ball that could have changed things, but there’s nobody that I’d rather have on the mound in that situation than Brady Durkan. Caden Churchman just put a good swing on the ball and hit it out. And that was kind of the turning point of the game.”

Liberty's Brock Thompson got things started with a home run off the net in right field on the second pitch of the game.

Durkan struck out the next two batters, but Davis Goodwin reached on an error and Caden Churchman then hit the ball out for an apparent 3-0 lead.

After returning to the batter’s box, Caden Churchman walked and Durkan got Tryce Spainhoward to fly out to end the inning.

Durkan (10-2) needed 27 pitches to get out of the first and threw 23 more in the second, working around a two-out error to keep the game close.

“His pitch count was pretty high today,” Boren said. “Maybe not his best stuff, not his best command. I think he walked (five) guys, which is kind of uncharacteristic, but he’s still a guy that we trust that makes big pitches in big spots.”

The senior right-hander worked himself around lead-off walks in the third and fourth and took a 2-1 lead into the fifth before Liberty rallied.

The Titans (17-8, 5-3) had taken the lead in the bottom of the third when Casen Bradford led off with a double and one out later moved to third on a fielder’s choice grounder by Logan Judd. Landon McDonald then walked to load the bases. After Bradford was erased at home on a force out, Judd and McDonald scored on an error for a 2-1 lead.

Evan Churchman seemed to get stronger as the game went along. After allowing two unearned runs in the third, he retired nine of the next 10 batters. He allowed two earned runs on six hits, striking out six and walking three.

Frontier rallied for two runs in the seventh to make it close. Ronnie Machado led off with a double and two outs later scored on a ground out by Cameron Clay. Judd followed with a home run to cut the deficit to two runs, but Evan Churchman got McDonald to pop out to Thompson to end the game.

“We’ve got some guys who have to get on the mound and really compete,” Mills said. “And they do a great job. Evan Churchman has been great. He’s just a guy that’s kind of calm and cool and just gets the ball and does great things with it. He commands three pitches for a strike.

“He struggled a little bit early, but he’s not one of these guys that’s going to panic. He’s going to keep working and stay with his fundamentals. It was really outstanding to see him do so well today.”

The Titans have four more league games to play, starting with Thursday’s game at Liberty, followed by three next week against Centennial.

“We knew coming in that this was going to be a tough stretch,” Boren said. “We lost two to Stockdale last week and then this one, so I could tell after the game the guys are frustrated. We’re a good team. We’re just kind of going through a lull right now. My message after the game was ‘keep grinding.’”