Team USA and Cuba could hardly have been more evenly matched.
After splitting the first six meetings against each other this summer, USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team faced Cuba's national team a seventh time in the semifinals of Haarlem Honkbal Week in the Netherlands, with a trip to the gold-medal game on the line.
After nine innings in that final matchup, the score was tied, 3-3. Not only that, the cumulative run total for both teams in the seven games was also dead even—33 apiece.
International tiebreaker rules went into effect in the 10th, and Cuba scored twice in the frame to win 5-3. Team USA had to settle for a white-knuckle 4-3 win against the Netherlands the next day in the bronze-medal game, ending its summer at 12-5.
While the Americans were disappointed to lose the series to Cuba and to come up short of the gold medal in Haarlem, they could feel good about holding their own against a Cuban team loaded with veteran international stars, such as Alfredo Despaigne, Yulieski Gourriel and Ariel Pestano. And the first five meetings took place in Cuba, with the host winning three of them.
"From my perspective, obviously we wanted to win it all at Honkbal, but I thought this was a pretty grueling tour for this group," Team USA coach Dave Serrano said. "This team went to Cuba and played five games on their soil, with their umpires and their crowd. I thought we went in there and stood toe-to-toe with them in every game we played.
"Knowing what I do know about that (Cuban) team and the professionalism of those players—the age and strength of those players, the ability of those players, the amount of time those guys have played together for years and years—I was very proud of our group."
Eric Campbell, USA Baseball's general manager of national teams, said the summer proved that American collegians belong on the same field with Cuba's best players, and he hopes the series with Cuba becomes a regular staple of the summer program, starting with a return trip next year.
And if Team USA's bullpen had been able to hold late leads in three of its four losses against Cuba, Campbell and Serrano would be celebrating a wildly successful summer against a challenging schedule. Instead, Cuba rallied from behind one last time in the final meeting.
Jonathon Crawford (Florida) held Cuba scoreless for seven innings and carried a 3-0 lead into the eighth. Serrano said his pitch count was just 71 heading into the frame, so Crawford went back to the mound to start the eighth. But he hit the leadoff man and walked the next batter on four pitches, and suddenly Cuba was in business. Bobby Wahl (Mississippi) entered and gave up three hits and a walk, allowing three runs to score and erasing the USA lead.
Team USA intended for Wahl, a starter for Ole Miss in the spring, to be its power-armed closer at the back of the bullpen, but his cumulative workload limited him to 7 2/3 innings over six appearances on the summer. Sidewinder David Berg (UCLA) picked up much of the slack, working 9 2/3 innings over eight appearances, but Team USA could have used a full-strength Wahl.
"Bobby Wahl had logged a lot of innings at Ole Miss; he had some soreness throughout the tour, so I was not about to put him out there unless he was ready to go," Serrano said. "His gaps between appearances were pretty wide—we didn't have the luxury of going to him every time. We used David Berg at the end, and he didn't disappoint us, but we didn't have that real big arm at the end."
Originally, Team USA had envisioned Oregon's Jimmie Sherfy in the closer role, but he was injured in super regionals, forcing some improvisation. Ultimately, the bullpen proved to be the Achilles' heel.
"We just didn't get the right rhythm in the bullpen," Campbell said. "(In the future), do we need more of a regular closer, a back-to-back guy? Or do we keep cultivating guys like Wahl and (Oregon State's Dan) Child and going to them to close games? That's a big question mark we have to answer for our program."
The bullpen nearly relinquished another lead in the bronze-medal game against the Netherlands. Team USA carried a 4-1 lead into the ninth behind Marco Gonzales (Gonzaga), who struck out nine without issuing a walk and scattering six hits over eight strong innings. Gonzales, dubbed "college baseball's Tom Glavine" by Serrano, had also struck out 10 over seven strong innings earlier in the tournament to beat Japan.
But after Gonzales exited in that final game, the Dutch bats got going against Berg in the ninth, pushing two runs across and sending the tying run to third base. Child took over for Berg and ended the game with a strikeout on a 3-and-2 slider.
"I told our guys it was going to be a character game for the United States of America," Serrano said. "Everyone was disappointed after losing to Cuba, but we were going to show up the next day and represent our country. When it was 4-3 in the ninth, we showed a lot of character."
Midseason Form At Season's End
Serrano likened the atmosphere to "the bleacher scene at Wrigley Field, but throughout the whole stadium." Team USA handled the environment well during its 6-2 performance in Honkbal, and the players were thankful for a crowd that appreciated good baseball—like an Omaha crowd, Serrano said.
And at the end of Team USA's month-long tour, Campbell got the sense the team was just finding its stride, having adjusted to using wood bats and facing crafty international pitchers who spot mid-80s fastballs and work backward.
Outfielder Austin Cousino (Kentucky), who finished with a .351/.479/.459 summer line after his torrid Honkbal tournament, paced the offense from the top, while San Diego's Kris Bryant (.271/.368/.508, 3 HR, 10 RBI) and New Mexico's D.J. Peterson (.241/.329/.483, 4 HR, 14 RBI) provided most of the lineup's punch.
And Team USA's starting pitching was characteristically overpowering, led by Gonzales (3-0, 2.82, 29-5 K-BB in 22 IP), Crawford (3-0, 2.10, 13-11 K-BB in 26 IP) and N.C. State's Carlos Rodon (2-0, 1.42, 21-7 K-BB in 19 IP).
"I think our pitching will hang with anybody's in the world; we just need to do a better job in the later innings," Campbell said. "If we had another tournament next week, and we had 30 days of the wood bat behind us—it seems like we're just starting to swing the wood bats a little bit, and it's ending. You always want to get to your maximum peak, and I don't think we ever got there with this club. We've got to find a way to get to that peak earlier.
"So there is some emptiness—we just didn't get it done. That's something that will be bitter for everybody, but certainly it was a really good summer for the guys."