USA Baseball’s 18-and-under national team concluded pool play Wednesday at the IBAF World Cup in Taichung, Taiwan, with a 12-6 win over Colombia to clinch first place in Group B. The defending champions went 4-1 in group play and will begin the three-game second round (which includes six remaining teams) against Venezuela on Thursday.
Although Cuba also finished 4-1 in Group B, USA held the head-to-head tie-breaker after a 6-5 walk-off win Tuesday. Team USA outscored its opponents 28-13 over the five games. Sure-handed defensive play has carried the team, as it is the only squad to not allow an unearned run, while every other team has averaged seven unearned runs over the five games. Power pitching has also led the way for USA, as it tied for the Group B lead in strikeouts. USA has been solid in every phase of the game, finishing fifth out of twelve teams in runs scored and runs allowed.
Japan, the winner of Group A, was the only team to go undefeated in the first round and had the best run differential (+38) of all the teams.
USA will play three games over as many days against Venezuela, Chinese Taipei and Japan to determine who plays in the gold medal game the following day, Sept. 8. The other teams to advance to the second round were Korea and Cuba.
The six teams that did not advance to the second round will square off in placement games Thursday. Canada (2-3) and Australia (2-3) will battle for seventh place while Mexico (1-4) and Colombia (1-4) face off for ninth. The Czech Republic (0-5) and Italy (1-4) will play for 11th place.
Below are highlights from each of Team USA’s games:
Game One: USA defeated Italy, 8-0.
Jack Flaherty, a 6-foot-3, 217-pound righthander/third baseman from Harvard-Westlake High in Studio City, Calif., pitched six strong innings, allowing two hits and striking out nine against three walks. Three relievers, lefthander Mac Marshall, righthander Marvin Gorgas and righthander Joe DeMers, each threw one scoreless inning in relief.
USA had a team-wide offensive onslaught against Italy, as every member of the starting lineup collected a hit or walk. Cleanup hitter Alex Destino, a lefthanded hitter from North Buncombe High, Weaverville, N.C., led the way with two hits and drove in two runs with a bases-loaded single in a four-run fifth inning. Center fielder Scott Hurst also drove in two and finished with a single and a walk. Six-foot-3, 180-pound switch-hitting shortstop Cole Tucker went 2-for-3, including a triple off the right-field wall, with a walk.
Game Two: Australia defeated USA, 1-0.
USA starter Keaton McKinney allowed a single up the middle in the second inning that scored third baseman Sam Kennelly for the only run of the game. The physical 6-foot-4, 223-pound righthander from Ankeny (Iowa) High struck out four against three walks and five hits in 4 2/3 innings. Righthander Marvin Gorgas struck out four of the 10 hitters he faced in 2 2/3 scoreless relief innings, and righthander Luis Ortiz retired the only two hitters he faced on strikeouts.
Left fielder Adam Haseley was the only hitter with two hits.
Aussie Lewis Thorpe, a lefthander in the Twins organization, registered eight strikeouts against no walks in 5 2/3 innings.
Game Three: USA defeated Korea, 2-1.
Against Korea, Team USA faced another pitching duel but emerged victorious. Lefthander Brady Aiken allowed one run and five hits in 5 2/3 innings while striking out seven.
“When you talk about big-time performances in a USA Baseball uniform, you have to talk about Brady Aiken,” 18U National Team manager Rob Cooper said. “He gave us the outing we had to have. He was super competitive and probably doesn’t understand the kind of effort that was. One day he will.”
Righthanders Joe DeMers and Luis Ortiz combined for five strikeouts against one walk and one hit in 3 1/3 scoreless relief innings.
USA scored its first run in the initial frame with infielder Trace Loehr and catcher Michael Rivera drawing back-to-back walks and advancing into scoring position on a wild pitch before left fielder Adam Haseley drove in Loehr with a sacrifice fly to right field. Haseley went 2-for-2 with a sacrifice fly and walk.
Loehr scored the second and final run for the Americans on a single by first baseman/righthander Keaton McKinney.
Game Four: USA defeated Cuba, 6-5.
Cuba scored three runs in the second inning to chase USA starter Justus Sheffield from the game. Righthander Jacob Nix was called upon in relief and threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings, scattering four hits and four walks around five strikeouts.
“Nix saved us,” Cooper said afterward. “He held us in there and gave us the opportunity to come back. It’s funny, I saw him at lunch today and told him, ‘I know you haven’t thrown yet, but be ready to throw some big innings, maybe even tonight.’ I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Team USA battled back with two runs in the fourth, led by consistent offensive catalysts Loehr and Hurst, and three in the seventh to take a 5-3 lead going into the eighth, a scoreless frame. But Cuba tied the game with a pair of runs in the ninth.
Infielder Bryson Brigman, who won a gold medal last year, singled to lead off the ninth and was sacrificed to second. Loehr was intentionally walked to bring Rivera to the plate, and he hit a single to right field that plated Loehr for a dramatic 6-5 victory.
Game 5: USA defeated Colombia, 12-6.
After a doubleheader and a walk-off win the day before, team USA plated six runs in the first two frames to take a commanding 6-0 lead. Haseley was again the focal point of the offensive attack with a triple in the first to plate Rivera, a double in the second and two runs scored. He picked up another double and scored in the fourth. The outfielder from The First Academy (Fla.) leads all hitters with a .647 batting average in the first round to go with five extra-base hits, two walks and a stolen base.
Marshall started and struck out five while allowing two walks and six hits over 5 2/3 innings, allowing three runs. After the bullpen allowed three runs in the seventh, DeMers threw 2 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing a single baserunner.
“Joe did exactly what we were looking for,” Cooper commented. “He attacked the strike zone and used his bulldog mentality. We needed him at the end to quiet things down and get us out of there.”