USA Baseball's collegiate national team fell just short of its fourth straight V FISU World University Championships title this weekend in Tokyo, as Cuba overcame a pair of late deficits in the gold-medal game to stun the Americans, 4-3, in 10 innings.
"It was one of the greatest games I've ever watched, I think," Team USA coach Bill Kinneberg said Tuesday, after returning from Japan. "The intensity of both teams, the play of both teams, just the way it unfolded was really something. It was just too bad somebody had to lose, and it was really too bad we came out on the losing end of it. I don't know if I've ever seen a team of mine play with that emotion and that intensity for 10 innings."
After Drew Maggi (Arizona State) broke a scoreless tie with a solo homer in the top of the eighth, Cuban star Alfredo Despaigne answered with a game-tying solo homer of his own in the bottom of the frame against USA closer Noe Ramirez (Cal State Fullerton), who had entered in relief of starter Gerrit Cole (UCLA). Cole had scattered 10 hits over seven shutout innings.
Lefthander Nick Ramirez (Cal State Fullerton) rescued his Titans teammate from a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the ninth to force extra innings. International tie-breaker rules allowed each team to start its 10th inning with runners on first and second and no outs. Team USA finally got to Cuban starter Miguel Gonzalez (who struck out 14 over 9 2/3 innings, throwing 151 pitches) for two runs in the top of the 10th, but Despaigne answered again in the bottom of the inning.Unknown Object
With one out, Despaigne cranked his second homer of the game—a walk-off, three-run shot against Nick Ramirez. It came on an 0-and-1 changeup.
"He's really a mature hitter," Kinneberg said of Despaigne. "Nick threw him a changeup the first pitch, and he looked kind of bad on it. As good a hitter as he was, we threw it to him again, and he really made a tremendous adjustment on it. Nick threw a good pitch, but his strength took over on that. It was really a great at-bat by him."
There's no shame in losing to Despaigne, who is the best player in Cuban baseball right now. The 24-year-old outfielder is a veteran of the 2008 Olympics (when he homered against Stephen Strasburg in a Cuban rout of the USA in the semifinals) and 2009 World Baseball Classic. In 2008-09, he hit 32 home runs in Cuba's Serie Nacional, breaking the league record. He nearly won the league's triple crown this past season, when he became the third player to repeat as Serie Nacional MVP.
So Team USA had to settle for the silver medal, but it took a heroic performance from Cuba's best player to keep the younger Americans from the gold.
Team USA finished its summer tour with a 16-3 record, including two losses against Chinese Taipei immediately after the Americans landed in Asia. The team rebounded nicely from those losses, splitting the four-game series against the Taiwanese and then outscoring its five opponents 46-10 to reach the FISU finals. That run included quality wins against Canada in pooly play and Japan in the semifinals.
As usual, pitching was Team USA's greatest strength. The team's 11-man pitching staff posted a 1.22 combined ERA with 188 strikeouts and 41 walks in 162 innings. Six different pitchers posted sub-1.00 ERAs in 11 or more innings, led by lefthander Tyler Anderson (1-0, 0.00 in 16 innings over three starts) and righty Sonny Gray (3-0, 0.38 in 24 innings over five appearances, including the semifinal win against Japan). Gray and Cole (2-0, 0.72) turned in their second straight dominant summers with Team USA.
"Our pitching was really good throughout the summer," Kinneberg said. "We gave up some runs against Chinese Taipei in the tournament, that was really the only game we gave up any significant runs whatsoever. Our pitching and defense were really good. I think we struggled at times offensively, and mainly because of the type of pitching we were seeing. When we saw average pitching or below average pitching we hit pretty good. But we saw really good pitching from Korea (early in the summer in North Carolina), and really good pitching from Japan and Cuba obviously, and Chinese Taipei had some good arms. Offensively I thought we were a little bit shy, and without Anthony (Rendon), that probably hurt us a little bit on the offensive side."
Still, the Americans rebounded after Rendon—BA's 2010 College Player of the Year—suffered a major ankle injury in the second game of the summer. Team USA brought in Jason Esposito (Vanderbilt) to play third base, and he provided superb defense as well as extra energy and intensity. Team USA was plenty athletic—the outfield alone contained a trio of legitimate five-tool center fielders in George Springer (Connecticut), Jackie Bradley Jr. (South Carolina) and Mikie Mahtook (Louisiana State)—and had a bit of power (most notably from Bethune-Cookman's Peter O'Brien and Springer, two of the summer's biggest breakout players). A third breakout star—versatile infielder Ryan Wright (Louisville)—might have been the team's MVP. Wright led all regulars with a .361 average and delivered clutch hit after clutch hit.
The infield defense was strong, thanks to the steadiness of shortstop Nolan Fontana (Florida), second baseman Drew Maggi (Arizona State), Esposito and Nick Ramirez (Cal State Fullerton). Team USA posted a solid .976 fielding percentage.
It was a well-constructed club, though it fell just short of its No. 1 goal. But Kinneberg praised the character and toughness of his team and said he regarded the summer as a success.
"It was really a pleasure for me to be around these guys," Kinneberg said. "We asked them at the beginning to come play hard every game, play the game right, and they did it. I thought the tour was competitive all the way through, with the Koreans and then the Japanese in Omaha, then going to Taiwan was a good experience for us. That got us more ready for the tournament because we were in Asia and continued playing that style of baseball. It was shorter than the other tours I've been involved in, which may have been a good thing too. Our starting pitchers did not overthrow, everybody got kind of the same number of at-bats.
"You always tell your team to leave it on the field, and we did."
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