On Thursday, August 16, a collection of talented teenage baseball players gathered in Chihuahua, Mexico for the first round of the IBAF’s inaugural 15-and-under Baseball World Championship. However, members of USA Baseball’s 15U National Team were noticeably absent. Instead, the players, coaches, and administrative staff were returning to the United States after a four day stay in the Dominican Republic.
Concerned with the safety and security in the Chihuahua region, USA Baseball elected to decline the IBAF’s invitation to the 15U World Championships.
“We have a close relationship with Major League Baseball and their security department,” said 15U director Jeff Singer. “We looked into Chihuahua and weren’t really comfortable, security-wise, especially considering the State Department’s travel advisory to that region of Mexico. The 16U team had been down to Mexico the last two summers and was treated very well in Lagos de Moreno. We loved it there. Had it been there or another region we certainly would have gone.”
In order to provide a similarly positive and competitive international experience for the players, USA Baseball’s staff worked in conjunction with Major League Baseball to set up a four-game series against some of the best young talent in the Caribbean, with two teams from the Dominican Republic’s newly-formed MLB Amateur Prospect League (with the talent split up along geographic lines) and one traveling in from Puerto Rico.
“We got in touch with some people from MLB International and talked about a couple of options, and we decided on heading down to the Dominican to play against similarly-aged kids that would be eligible for the July 2, 2013 signing day,” Singer said. “We were able to organize so that we played in Estadio Quisqueya, which is the main stadium in Santo Domingo that the Licey and Escogido teams use for the Dominican Winter League.”
Led by manager Tom Meusborn, who also serves as the head coach of Chatsworth (Calif.) High, the 15U team went a perfect 4-0 in their brief stay in the Dominican Republic.
“The first day was tough with all of the travel,” Meusborn said. “We had a 4 a.m. wakeup call, caught two planes and took two or three different bus rides before we even got settled. Then we had a bit of a rain delay so the game didn’t start until 9 p.m. or so. But the kids did a great job handling it.”
In their first game, after waiting out the rain, Team USA defeated Dominican Republic’s Red team 14-1. Solomon Bates (Victorville, Calif.) shut down the Red Team, firing six shutout innings and striking out 13 in the process. Isaak Gutierrez (Norwalk, Calif.) and Nick Madrigal (Elk Grove, Calif.) both had solid games for an offense that drew 15 walks. Gutierrez went 2-for-4 with two runs and one RBI, while leadoff man, Madrigal was 1-for-3 with three walks, three runs, and an RBI.
“Solomon came out and really threw it well for us,” Meusborn said. “But the next day everything really hit us. After everything was said and done we had been up for about 22 straight hours and had an afternoon game scheduled the next day.”
Running on fumes, Team USA’s second game was much closer, but a two-run top of the sixth provided the difference against a talented squad from the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy. After a Nico Hoerner (Oakland, Calif.) leadoff triple, Danny Casals (Miami, Fla.) gave starting pitcher Cole Sands all the insurance he would need with an RBI single. Sands (Tallahassee, Fla.) struck out eight batters and allowed just two hits over seven innings. Austin Moore (Huntington Beach, Calif.) picked up the save, striking out three in two hitless innings.
“Solomon Bates really set the tone for the rest of us pitchers,” Sands said. “Everybody was exhausted from the travel and just the heat down there, but we did a good job fighting through it.”
Team USA’s pitching dominance carried over to a matchup with the Dominican Republic’s Blue team, as the Americans won 6-1 behind strong performances from Bailey Falter (Chino Hills, Calif.; 3 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 3 K), Jio Orozco (Tucson; 4 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 8 K), and Coby Weaver (Hallsville, Texas; 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 K).
“I was real pleased with our pitching depth,” said assistant coach Matt LaCour. “Everyone stepped up and did an outstanding job throwing strikes against some quality players with impressive tools and bat speed.”
In their final game, a rematch against Dominican Republic’s Red team, Team USA jumped out to an early lead and cruised to a 9-1 victory. Luken Baker (Spring, Texas) struck out seven and gave up three hits and one run over five innings to pick up the win. Madrigal (2-for-4, 2 R), Hoerner (2-for-4, R, RBI), Chris Betts (Long Beach; 3-for-5, 2 R, 3 RBIs), and Kyle Dean (San Diego, Calif., 3-for-4, 3 R, RBI) spearheaded a 13-hit attack.
“Seeing our guys get comfortable with the wooden bats was neat,” LaCour said. “Early on in training it might have been a bit of an adjustment for these young guys, but they did a great job.”
Betts, one of the game’s offensive heroes, did not think that the wood bats played much of a factor.
“It’s changing a lot now—a lot of tournaments are strictly wood bat tournaments,” said Betts. “It wasn’t that big of a deal. I use wood in the cages so I’m kind of used to it anyway.”
Aside from getting used to competing in live game action with wood bats, the players were also younger than most of their opponents, as a handful of the players from the Dominican and Puerto Rican teams were one year older, and in some cases up to two years older than their American counterparts.
“We knew that some of the kids would be older than us going in,” Meusborn said. “As the coach for the 16U team last year, I know how much more of a difference one year can make. But our guys holding their own really says a lot about USA Baseball and our commitment to execution and the fundamentals.”
Journey to Pantoja
However, their journey was much more than just a four-day tournament. The players and coaches were able to travel through different parts of Santo Domingo and bond throughout the travel experience.
“The trip happened really fast and there were points where you couldn’t believe that you were still awake,” LaCour said. “But it was an eye-opening experience not just for the players, but the coaches and staff members as well. I wish it lasted longer because everybody was really bonding and getting comfortable with each other.”
As previous USA Baseball teams had done during past international trips, the 15U squad brought along gloves, baseballs, and other equipment to donate. This year the team visited the Pantoja, an impoverished neighborhood just outside of Santo Domingo that was home to former major leaguer Anderson Hernandez.
“I think that the experience really helped the kids to realize how fortunate we are in the U.S.,” Meusborn said. “It felt good to be able to give something back to kids that have so many obstacles to overcome just to play baseball.”
The team’s visit was particularly special as the players not only donated their equipment but also participated in a game of catch with the local children.
“The kids couldn’t really talk to each other or understand each other, but baseball really is the universal language,” Meusborn said. “Seeing the two groups interact with the smiles that they had on their faces was great.”
Betts, a member of last year’s 14U team that visited Venezuela for the Pan-American games, was very appreciative of his experiences last year in San Felipe and this year in Pantoja.
“Last year’s trip to Venezuela was very humbling,” Betts said. “The experience this year was very similar. You could tell that the gloves and stuff were some of the only gifts they had ever gotten. I mean baseball means so much to them and when we threw with them you could notice the drive that these kids have. It makes you think about how lucky really are here. It makes you want to keep working hard.”
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