Cuba has long been the beast of international baseball. But 2006 was shaping up as an all-American year, as USA Baseball won four gold medals–including two on Cuban soil this summer–leading to the final international competition of the year, the IBAF World Junior Championship in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba.
And even though Team USA once again successfully dispatched of the host country’s tournament entry, ousting Cuba 4-0 Sunday in the quarterfinals, Cuba haunted the U.S. after all. It was the soil itself, as a two-strike, two-out, bad-hop grounder bounced over U.S. shortstop Justin Jackson and into center field to bring home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning, ending the gold medal game 4-3 in favor of Korea.
“It was a two-hopper bringing the shortstop to the bag,” said coach Jason Hisey over a crackling cell phone following the loss, still in disbelief. “He was going to catch it and touch second when it hit something and went over his head.”
Korea tied the game 3-3 with an RBI double in the eighth inning before winning it in the ninth. Team USA pitchers hit two batters and walked eight others while its offense stranded 14 runners, including two at second and third in the top of the ninth.
Righthander Michael Main (Deland, Fla., High) hit Nam Hyung Kim to begin the ninth before being lifted for righthander Tim Alderson (Horizon High, Scottsdale, Ariz.). A sacrifice bunt and strikeout later, Alderson issued a two-out intentional walk. Kwon Hwang, a defensive replacement in the top of the inning, then bounced a two-strike pitch up the middle, which Jackson (Roberson High, Asheville, N.C.) watched bounce over his head, allowing Kim to score the winning run.
“All four of their runs scored by walk, hit by pitch or errors,” Hisey (Pima, Ariz. JC) said. “We pitched so well for the whole tournament but just didn’t command the strike zone all night.”
The loss prevented USA Baseball from sweeping its annual international events and extended the junior team’s drought without claiming gold to seven years. It was the ninth silver medal for the junior national team in the 22-year history of the event. Korea also defeated Team USA in 2000, the last time the two countries met in a championship game at the junior (18-and-under) level.
It was the fourth world title for Korea, which beat 6-foot-7 Canadian ace righthander Phillipe Aumont, considered the best Canadian prospect since Orioles lefty Adam Loewen, in the semifinals Tuesday.
It was a crushing close to a tumultuous tournament for Team USA. America lost its first two games of the event during pool play, and barely qualified for the quarterfinals, as the No. 4 seed in one of two four-team brackets. America then won five games in a row, and its win against No. 1 overall seed Cuba followed a six-hour rain delay, much of which the team spent napping on a bus to avoid making the two-hour round-trip back to its hotel in Ciego de Avila.
“It was a tremendously emotional week,” Hisey said. “Tremendous ups and incredibly scary downs. We just came up one bad hop short.”
Sept. 27: Canada Wins Bronze; Cuba Stumbles
Canada won its fifth-ever medal in the World Junior Championships and its first since 1997, defeating Mexico 6-2 to win the bronze medal. Saskatchewan’s Cory Hall went seven innings in relief to earn the victory for Canada (6-3) while Drew Parker got the final five outs for a save.
Host Cuba (6-2), which went through pool play undefeated before losing to the United States in a quarterfinal, lost its last game of the tournament to Taiwan, falling 2-1 to finish sixth in the touranment. In its worst showing in international baseball since at least 2000–if not ever–Cuba played host to three major international tournaments this summer and failed to win any of them.
Its best finish came from its top national team, which tied for first with Team USA in the Americas Olympic qualifier but lost 8-5 in its only head-to-head matchup with the Americans.
Sept. 25: Team USA 8, Mexico 2
Less than 24 hours after an emotional win against Cuba in the quarterfinals, Team USA moved one victory away from gold by defeating Mexico 8-2 in the semifinals of the IBAF World Junior Championship.
Matt Dominguez (Chatsworth, Calif., High) slammed his second three-run home run in as many games and righthander Tim Alderson (Horizon High, Scottsdale, Ariz.) pitched five shutout innings of relief.
The junior national team, which has 18 of the country’s top players in the 18-and-under age group, advanced to the gold medal game of the bi-annual event for the first time since 2000, when it lost to Shin-Soo Choo and Korea. The junior program last won gold in 1999 with a team featuring current big leaguers such as Jeff Baker, Joe Mauer and Carlos Quentin in Taiwan, and is seeking its sixth world championship.
Korea (5-2) defeated Canada (5-3) in the other semifinal game Tuesday, winning 6-1 to advance to play Team USA (5-2). Korea beat 6-foot-7 Canadian ace righthander Phillipe Aumont, considered a potential early-round pick in the 2007 draft, as Canadian pitchers walked seven.
The Americans have won five in a row since dropping its first two contests of the tournament.
Sept. 24: Team USA 4, Cuba 0
After an 0-2 start to the tournament, USA Baseball’s junior national team has found its footing in Cuba at the World Junior Championships, and Sunday, Team USA’s momentum continued at the expense of the host nation.
Righthander Blake Beavan (Irving, Texas) struck out 11 in a complete-game shutout victory while giving up just seven hits and one walk as Team USA beat the host Cubans 4-0 in a quarterfinal matchup. The game was the third straight USA-Cuba game won by the Americans this summer. In August, Team USA Youth beat Cuba 8-5 in Venezuela en route to the gold medal in the COPABE Pan Am Championships, and Team USA’s professionals beat Cuba by the same score in the Olympic Qualifyier in Cuba earlier this month.
Cuba and the U.S. didn’t face each other in the FISU World University Championships in August, but USA Baseball’s college national team won that tournament, and the various Teams USA have won gold at four events this summer–Women’s World Cup joined by the Youth tournament, FISU event and the Olympic qualifier. Now the junior team is two wins away from a clean sweep for USA Baseball.
As steady rain fell at Huelga Stadium in Sancti Spiritus, Team USA’s elimination game with the host country was postponed more than six hours. When the game began, Beavan was in command as he gave up just seven hits and one walk, and Team USA rallied with three runs in the seventh as third baseman Matt Dominguez (Chatsworth, Calif., High) hit a three-run home run.
Team USA advanced to Monday’s semifinals, where it will meet Mexico. Mexico defeated Team USA in a rain-shortened pool play game Tuesday.
“I thought our boys stood toe-to-toe with them and punched back,” U.S. coach Jason Hisey (Pima, Ariz., Junior College) said. “That, to me, was the determining factor in the game.
“Blake had probably one of the finest pitching performances that I have ever seen under these circumstances.”
Cuba had two on and one out in the eighth inning, but Beavan retired cleanup hitter Carlos Mesa on strikes, then got Yasmany Perez to pop out to end the threat.
“This is definitely one of the best experiences of my life,” said Beavan, a sidearmer who took a loss to Taiwan earlier in the event.
The game featured two splendid defensive plays, including left fielder Mike Moustakas’ (Chatsworth, Calif., High) leaping catch that prevented a home run in the third. Two innings later, Cuba cut down Victor Sanchez (Gahr High, Cerritos, Calif.) at home plate on a relay from the outfield.
Team USA finally broke through in the seventh against starter Juan Serrano (1-1), who was the winning pitcher a year ago in Cuba’™s 2-1 victory against the junior national team in the gold medal game of the Pan American Championship in Villahermosa, Mexico.
Mexico advanced to the medal round with a 5-3 victory against the Netherlands (3-3). Korea (4-2) shutout Taiwan (3-3) 1-0 and awaits the winner of Monday’s final quarterfinal game between Canada (4-1) and Panama (2-3).
Cuba, meanwhile, must deal with the fact it did not win a major international baseball tournament for the first time since 2000, despite the fact that the island nation and baseball superpower played host to three major tournaments (junior, college-age and professional) in a two-month span. It’s lack of success is especially surprising considering the impressive second-place finish of Cuba’s entry in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in March, which seems a long time ago now after a summer in which Cuban baseball has fallen short.
Sept. 22: Team USA 11, Spain 1
The U.S. wrapped up pool play with a third straight victory, run-ruling Spain behind three RBIs apiece from Tommy Medica (San Jose) and Daniel Elorriaga Matra (Coral Springs, Fla.). Matt Dominguez (Lake Balbora, Calif.) had a two-run triple in the first inning, and Team USA never looked back. Righthander Greg Peavey (Vancouver, Wash.) tossed a seven-inning complete game, striking out 12 while allowing just three hits and one walk.
Sept. 21: Team USA 18, Italy 1
After scoring only three runs in its first three games, USA Baseball’s bats finally got going on Thursday as Team USA pounded Italy 18-1 in a game that was called after seven-innings because of the international mercy rule. The win evened up the U.S.’s record at 2-2, which puts them in a three-way tie for third place in its pool.
The U.S. took advantage of Italian starter Luca Panerati’s wildness, as Panerati walked three batters and hit another in the first inning. Matt Domiguez (Chatsworth High, Lake Balboa, Calif.) had a three-run double and Michael Main (Deland, Fla., High) had an RBI double as the U.S. scored six runs in the first inning.
“It was great to have some of our guys break out like they did today,” coach Jason Hisey said in a USA Baseball release. “We had some hitters go through experiences that they haven’t had previously. But it was great to see them have some good at-bats.”
The U.S. added another eight runs in the fourth, thanks to three more walks and two hit batters. Mike Moustakas (Chatsworth High, Lake Balboa, Calif.) drove in another of his five RBIs, while Matt Newman drove in two more with a single.
U.S. starter Jarrod Parker (Norwell High, Blufton, Ind.) allowed only one hit while walking three and striking out five. Tim Anderson (Horizon High, Phoenix, Ariz.) pitched a pefect seventh in relief.
Sept. 20: Team USA 2, Canada 1
USA Baseball’s junior national team broke through for its first win in a 2-1 victory Wednesday against Canada in pool play at the World Junior Championship in Ciego de Avila, Cuba.
Team USA righthander Neil Ramirez (Kempsville, Va., High) wasn’t sharp, as he walked four and was lifted in the sixth inning, but he was effective, striking out seven. Righthanders Kevin Rhoderick (Horizon High, Scottsdale, Ariz.) and Michael Main (Deland, Fla., High) shutout Team Canada in the late innings to preserve the win.
The U.S. junior national team (1-2) has scored just three runs in three games, and needed help from Canada (2-1) in a two-run fifth inning to overcome a 1-0 defecit. Outfielder Matt Newman (Brophy Prep, Phoenix) scored on a wild pitch and shortstop Justin Jackson (Roberson High, Asheville, N.C.) delivered an RBI single to give Rhoderick and Main all the support they would need. Main scored on Jackson’s base hit after reaching on a botched double-play grounder.
“In terms of the tournament, this was a huge win for us,” Team USA coach Jason Hisey (Pima, Ariz., Junior College) said. “It gives us a shot at being a decent seed if we make it to the (championship) quarterfinals. Prior to today, the team had not played together. The squad had been feeling itself out. But we competed better today.”
At 1-2, Team USA was fifth in its six-team pool headed into the final two days of pool play, with games remaining Thursday (Italy) and Friday (Spain). The top four teams from each pool advance to the quarterfinals, which are scheduled to begin Saturday.
Taiwan (3-0) and Cuba (2-0) are the tournament’s two remaining undefeated teams.
Sept. 19: Mexico 3, Team USA 0
The junior national team dropped to 0-2 when it was shut out in a rain-shortened loss to Mexico, losing 3-0 in Ciego de Avila, Cuba.
The game was called after a rain delay of one hour, five minutes in the top of the sixth inning, with Mexico at bat. The early end kept Team USA’s offense stymied in the tournament, as it has scored only one run in 14 innings. The Americans struck out eight times in five innings Tuesday against Mexican lefthander Carlos Garcia.
Team USA was held to three hits, all in succession in the third inning. Justin Jackson led off with a single but was picked off. Matt Newman and Christian Colon followed with singles, but Garcia struck out Victor Sanchez and Mike Moustakas to end the inning.
Mexico scored one in the second on an RBI double by Alberto Carreon, then scored two in the fourth on three hits and a walk by Team USA starter Matt Harvey (0-1).
Sept. 18: Taiwan 4, Team USA 1
USA Baseball’s junior national team stumbled in its first game at the IBAF World Junior Championship in Ciego De Avila, Cuba. Team USA committed three errors and Taiwan rallied for three runs in the sixth inning to win the tournament opener for both teams, 4-1.
Taiwan reliever Kai Wen Cheng hit a line drive past U.S. center fielder Matt Newman (Brophy Prep, Phoenix) with two on and two outs in the sixth to put Taiwan ahead.
Team USA stranded nine runners on base and grounded into three double plays. U.S. righthanders Blake Beavan (Irving, Texas, High), Tim Alderson (Horizon High, Scottsdale, Ariz.) and Jarrod Parker (Norwell, Ind., High) allowed one earned run in nine innings combined. Beavan took the loss while Cheng earned the win.
Second baseman Christian Colon (Canyon High, Anaheim) came to the plate representing the tying run in the ninth inning, but bounced into a game-ending 6-4-3 double play.
Australia and Cuba each won its first game, and remained undefeated in Pool B. Team USA and Spain were 0-1, trailing Taiwan, Italy (1-0), Canada (0-0) and Mexico (0-0) in Pool B. The top four teams from each pool advance to the quarterfinals.
Team USA has four pool play games remaining, beginning Tuesday against Mexico.
Should the U.S. junior national team win the gold medal, it would be the fourth gold medal USA Baseball teams would have won this summer, which would be a first for the organization.
The tournament features teams from 12 countries, comprised of players 18 and under. Team USA’s roster features 17 high school seniors and one college freshman.