It was an unusual summer for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, but largely a successful one.
Team USA’s summer tour was short and sweet, featuring no trials, no international travel and no major tournaments. The highlight of the summer schedule was the 38th series against a team of Japanese collegiate all-stars, which is now a bi-annual event. Team USA won the five-game series 3-1-1, capping an 11-2-1 summer campaign that ended Friday at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha.
“It was a great success to win the Japan series,” said Eric Campbell, USA Baseball’s general manager of national teams. “Tim (Jamieson) and his staff were willing to do it with no trials, and they got the team ready to play. The ultimate goal is to win the Japan series, and we did that . . . I’m just really proud of this team. They did a great job—we had a great staff, great team. We were just so different this year; it was a short tour, but I think these guys all will have great memories from this summer.”
It wasn’t easy for Missouri’s Jamieson, who served as Team USA’s head coach this summer, and his staff to get the team ready to face Japan in a short period of time. With no trials, the team convened on June 22 for a day of practice in Keene, N.H., and its tour through the New England Collegiate League was set to begin the next day. At that point, 10 of the 19 players who had been given official roster spots were still at the College World Series. Several key players, like Team USA veterans Nolan Fontana and Brian Johnson of Florida, played deep into the CWS, so more than a dozen alternates logged playing time at various points of the short schedule.
Some alternates, like Oral Roberts’ undrafted senior Chris Elder (.300/.397/.380 in 14 games), made the most of their opportunities and became fixtures on the team. Elder was signed as a free agent by the Royals at the end of the summer, and another undrafted senior—San Francisco third baseman Stephen Yarrow (.286/.400/.524 in six games)—signed as a free agent with the Giants.
“We had so many alternate-type guys in the camp, we wanted to throw a bone to those guys a little bit,” Campbell said. “We had a lot of guys decline (invitations), but we ended up with some great stories at the end. To have Stephen Yarrow come in and help us, and not get offered a final slot, but he knew his ultimate goal was playing pro baseball—that was one of the great stories of our summer. Chris Elder ended up making our club, got some great at-bats and signed with the Royals at the end of our tour. So there were some great stories.”
The weather was another obstacle, in the Northeast and in North Carolina. Team USA was forced to play three doubleheaders, including two during the Japan series. Its very first game was postponed by rain on June 23, forcing USA to play at Keene the next morning and in Mystic, Conn., later that night. The Americans played another morning/night, two-site doubleheader against Japan.
“That’s how the trip was—Mother Nature did not help us out,” Jamieson said. “And I think we all felt the trials are beneficial. There’s a transition time to wood. There’s a transition time from the college season to summer ball. It was difficult to gauge the conditioning level, especially for pitchers. Some guys are worn out, and some guys are moving in the other direction. The trials help you evaluate—who’s struggling, who’s healthy, who’s not?
“But the chemistry on the team was far beyond expectations. We didn’t know what we were getting into, but we benefited from the quality of the people. There was very little ego that we came across; it was very much a team very quickly.”
And it proved to be a very resilient team. USA had to come from behind in all three of its victories against Japan, highlighted by the series opener, when the Americans overcame a 6-2 deficit with five runs in the seventh inning. Dominic Ficociello (Arkansas) tied that game with a two-run single, then scored the winning run on a single by Elder and an error. Closer Marcus Stroman (Duke), the de facto MVP of the Japan series, extracted USA from an eighth-inning jam en route to the save. He worked 4 1/3 scoreless innings over three appearances against Japan, finishing the summer with a 0.00 ERA, 17 strikeouts and one walk in eight innings.
“In that type of short role, he elevated his game big-time,” Jamieson said of Stroman. “You could see he had the presence and adrenaline, and of course he had the stuff. Every time we put him out there in situations like that, he did the same thing.”
As usual, pitching was Team USA’s strength. It posted a 1.73 team ERA and a 127-33 strikeout-walk mark in 125 innings. Arizona State’s Brady Rodgers (2-0, 2.08), Texas A&M’s Michael Wacha (1-0, 0.79), Louisiana State’s Kevin Gausman (0-0, 2.08) and Missouri’s Eric Anderson (2-0, 0.00) came up big in starting roles, though Anderson did not make the final roster for the Japan series. Branden Kline (Virginia), Andrew Mitchell (Texas Christian), Hoby Milner (Texas), Corey Knebel (Texas), Mark Appel (Stanford), Matt Boyd (Oregon State) and Johnson joined Stroman in a stellar, overpowering bullpen.
The lineup took some time to gel, but wound up holding its own. Texas A&M’s Tyler Naquin (.321 with two homers and 10 RBIs) and Cal State Fullerton’s Michael Lorenzen (.317, one homer, 10 RBIs) helped anchor the lineup and brought incredible arm strength to the outfield. Arizona State’s Devn Marrero (.322, 14 RBIs) came up with a number of big hits, and Texas Christian’s Josh Elander (.327/.421/.510) emerged as a physical presence in the lineup while also handling the bulk of the catching. Elander has caught sparingly over two years at TCU, but Horned Frogs coach Jim Schlossnagle assured Team USA that he could handle the catching duties—and it became imperative for him to do so after Florida catcher Mike Zunino backed out of playing for the national team.
“The fact that Zunino didn’t come in was painful to us all, but Josh Elander exceeded all of our expectations,” Campbell said. “Zunino will go in as the top college catcher in the country, but Elander really made a name for himself. Playing with (former TCU catcher) Bryan Holaday obviously rubbed off, because the leadership skills were off the chart. And the catching skills were good, too.”
Jamieson and Campbell said that Johnson adjusted best to the wood bats. Though he played in just four games as a DH after arriving from the CWS, Johnson hit .417 and led the team with three home runs, including a solo shot to spark USA’s three-run seventh-inning rally in the clincher against Japan, when the Americans came back from a 3-1 hole. That was Team USA’s second win of the day; it had won a morning game against Japan in Cary, N.C., then took the nightcap in front of 9,816 fans at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
After Stroman recorded the final out, giving Team USA wins in the first three games of the five-game Japan series, the Americans embarked on a spontaneous victory lap around the stadium. Though Team USA tied and lost the final two games of the Japan series (and the summer) in Omaha, the victory lap in Durham stands out as the lasting image of the summer.
“Marcus and the boys taking the lap, the crowd we had at Durham—I thought it was one of the greatest days in collegiate national team history,” Campbell said.
“That was a come-from-behind win, in front of a big crowd,” Jamieson said. “The players took a victory lap, and the players did a little dance after the victory lap. That was a special moment. It shows you how this team came together.”