Just a few weeks remain in what has been a whirlwind summer for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, which arrived back in the United States from Cuba on Tuesday before catching a plane Wednesday to the Netherlands, where it will take part in the Haarlem Honkbal Week.
Team USA went 2-3 against the Cubans in their five-day trip to Havana, the first friendship series between the two countries since 1996. The U.S. won the first and last games of the series. All but one of the contests was decided by one run, and with a stronger showing by the bullpen, the Americans could have won the series. Instead, Cuba pulled out late rallies in Games Two and Three and wound up winning the series.
“(Going to) Cuba is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” outfielder Austin Cousino (Kentucky) said. “Going there and being off the field and seeing what the culture is like was great . . . We would go downtown and everyone would know who we were because the games were televised nationally, and I was just kind of surprised how much the Cubans love the sport of baseball and how much they knew about it.”
Cousino is one player with a unique perspective in terms of facing a Cuban national team: In 2009 he helped USA Baseball’s 16U Team defeat Cuba for the gold medal at the IBAF World Championship in Taiwan. In addition to his gold medal, Cousino was named tournament MVP.
Asked how this experience compares to that of 2009, the freshman mentioned the incredible amount of talent on both teams.
“There was a handful of first-rounders on that (16U) team, (Albert) Almora, (Francisco) Lindor and (Courtney) Hawkins and plenty of other top picks,” he said. “I would say on this team that everyone you play alongside could go within the top 10 picks . . . To be next to these guys and then come together with them to play against the Cuban national team and some of the best players in the world that you’ve heard about, it’s just overwhelming.”
The team arrived in Cuba the afternoon of July 5 and prepared for the first game later that night. A rain delay of nearly two hours pushed the first pitch to 9:45 p.m. Righthander Jonathon Crawford (Florida) started for Team USA and threw 6.1 innings, allowing two runs on four hits. On offense Michael Conforto (Oregon State) hit a sixth-inning grand slam, bringing in all four of Team USA’s runs. Righthander Bobby Wahl (Mississippi) came out of the bullpen and shut down a late Cuban rally, recording the final out after 1 a.m. in a 4-3 victory.
“They responded extremely well,” head coach Dave Serrano (Tennessee) said. “I really think we were playing on adrenaline that night.”
Crawford said that it meant a lot to him that Serrano showed faith in him to start the first game. Despite an enthusiastic crowd at Latin American Stadium, he maintained his composure throughout.
“I wasn’t really too nervous because I’ve played on a stage that big,” Crawford said. “The fans were just the way they were in Omaha. They were loud, they were screaming and it was just a lot of fun.”
The Americans carried the momentum over into the second game, taking a 6-2 lead behind runs by Conforto, Johnny Field (Arizona) and D.J. Peterson (New Mexico), as well as a three-hit effort by Kris Bryant (San Diego). Lefthander Marco Gonzales (Gonzaga) pitched six strong innings, but Cuba rallied off Trevor Williams (Arizona State) with three in the seventh and two in the eighth to a 7-6 victory.
Saturday’s game once again came down to the final inning, with Cuba again coming out on top. Team USA received another strong starting pitching performance, this time from Adam Plutko (UCLA). Carrying a three-run lead into the bottom of the ninth, Team USA couldn’t shut down a resilient Cuban offense and went on to lose 9-8.
“Saturday was probably the crusher for this team,” Serrano said. “Bobby Wahl, who we’ve been using as our closer, came up a little sore so we didn’t have him in that spot. And we go to the bottom of the ninth with a three-run lead and make an error in the inning, and the next thing you know the flood gates opened and (Cuba) ended up leaving with a victory.”
A 5-2 victory in Game Four clinched the series for Cuba as Freddy Alvarez pitched into the eighth inning to out-duel righthander Ryne Stanek (Arkansas), who went six innings and gave up three runs (two earned). Wahl’s return helped the Americans win 5-4 in the finale after Freshman of the Year Carlos Rodon (North Carolina State) started and turned in six strong innings. Field, who drove in the team’s only two runs in Game Four, had a two-run single to break a 3-3 eighth-inning tie in Game Five. Crawford pitched an inning in relief, giving up a run, and Wahl then gave the bullpen a lift by securing the save in the ninth.
“If you could have been on the bus ride (after the final game in Cuba) you would see that this team has a lot of fun together,” Serrano said. “There was dancing and singing on the ride from the ballpark to our hotel. It was pretty spectacular, and I say that because we’re a tired group. Our traveling has been grueling, as we’ve expected it to be, and each and every challenge we’ve put to them they’ve handled it.”
Beyond the box scores, it’s clear that Serrano and the collegiate squad appreciate what it means for the USA and Cuba to be playing a friendship series again for the first time in 16 years.
“I told them (Monday) night after we had a great 5-4 victory how proud I was of them and how they represented the United States of America,” Serrano said. “They’ll look back one day and realize that what we were able to accomplish and experience being over there, playing in Cuba with all their passionate fans, and see it was a great experience.”
Those passionate fans made an impression on Team USA players like Crawford, who said, “The fans there are really passionate about the game and about their team, so that just made it that much more fun to play in the stadium.”
The fans at Latin American Stadium, while supportive of their team, showed a healthy respect for the game of baseball as well. That sentiment did not go unnoticed by Team USA.
“I told our team before we started Game One that they’re probably not going to like us, but when it’s all said and done they’re going to respect us,” Serrano said. “And that’s what happened. Last night after our last out was recorded and our team shook hands with their team they gave USA Baseball a standing ovation. As our guys tipped their caps to the crowd, I think that’s something that every one of us will remember, the respect that had grown from their country and their people towards our team.”
The collegiate national team was facing Cuba’s top-level club, with a rotating 350-player roster featuring the likes of Cuban home run kings Alfredo Despaigne and Jose Abreu as well as four pitchers who have appeared in both the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics. The travel and competition helped the U.S. bond, Crawford and Cousino agreed.
“A lot of these guys I’ve played with or against in the SEC so it’s a lot of fun to get to know them and see how they act off the field,” Crawford said.
Added Cousino, “You watch these players and hear about them but never really get to know them. But then you get here you know who they are and how much fun you can have off and on the field. That probably was the coolest part, just all of us coming from different places and different programs and all coming into one team and trying to achieve the goal of bringing back the gold for USA Baseball.”
That is the goal in the Netherlands as the U.S. tries to win the six-team Honkbal Week tournament, an event the Cubans also will participate in. The host country, Japan, Puerto Rico and Taiwan round out the field, with the other countries using mostly professionals to face the American amateurs.
“I think what we’ve learned is that we can play with the best,” Serrano said. “I don’t think there’s any challenge that this team is going to have to overcome that’s greater than what we did in the last five games . . . We realize we have a little bit less than two weeks to go and our hope is that on Sunday, July 22nd, we’re putting that gold medal around our necks.”