ATLANTA–USA Baseball’s junior national team eagerly awaited the
chance to cleanse its pallet. Last year’s fourth place finish at the
World Junior Championship in Taipei City, Taiwan ended a 20-year string
in which the juniors had earned a medal at the biennial event, leaving
it with a sour taste that served as incentive for this year’s team as
it prepared for international competition.
And if the team’s six-day tune up in Georgia and its preliminary
pool play performances in Mexico were any indication of its appetite at
the COPABE AAA Pan Am Junior Championship, the junior national team
might soon relish the flavor of victory.
In exhibition games against the Canadian junior squad and Southeast
summer league teams, the depth and quality of the American pitching
staff was overwhelming. In two- and three-inning stints, Team USA
trotted pitcher after pitcher out to the mound, almost every one making
a strong case to carry the club’s flag as its ace.
Lefthanders Brett Anderson, Jeremy Bleich and Clayton Kershaw and
righties Dellin Betances, Greg Peavey, Kevin Rhoderick, Tyson Ross,
Josh Thrailkill and Shawn Tolleson performed exceptionally well and
offer an expansive assortment of pitching styles and pitches.
“The pitching is obviously going to carry them,” said a scout with a
National League organization who was in attendance in Georgia. “They
have some power arms and some kids that can really pitch. They’re some
of the better arms in the country.”
Bleich and Ross are the veterans of the group and while they both
feature awesome present stuff, they figured to find themselves on the
mound at critical stages of the tournament based as much on their poise
and mound presence as their lively arms.
Bleich, who along with Team USA outfielder Sean Ratliff, will enroll
at Stanford following a celebrated high school career; Anderson, a
senior at Stillwater (Okla.) High; and Tolleson, a senior from Allen
(Texas) High, were the frontrunners to get the call in medal play.
Ross, meanwhile, could fill a swing-man roll and pitch both as a
starter or late in games, thanks to his athleticism and power
Ross exemplifies the sacrifice and dedication Team USA searches for
in its players who tend to perform best when they shed a mentality of
showcasing their individual talent in exchange for embracing a team
concept, which countries like Cuba and Panama have thrived on.
Ross arrived in Georgia from Berkeley, Calif., in time to make a
strong start against Canada, but had to jump back on a plane that night
so he could be on campus at California the following day. Ross stepped
into his first college class–political science–gathered his
assignments, did well to remember his professors’ names and rejoined
the team 48 hours later in time to depart for Mexico. “I was sitting in
class thinking either I’ll be here for a whole semester or I’m outta
here tomorrow,” Ross said.
“Flying back and forth like that really shows the commitment we’re
looking for in the group we picked to represent their country,” Team
USA pitching coach Jason Hisey said. “From the first day in (Joplin,
Mo., at the Tournament of Stars) he made it clear he would do whatever
it took to make this team.”
No sooner than Ross could adjust his watch to yet another time zone,
he was thrust into the junior national team’s pool play showdown with
Cuba. He responded with five shutout innings with five strikeouts and
two hits. Tolleson followed with four solid innings of relief in Team
USA’™s 3-1 1win.
The game was the second of seven contests in seven days of
round-robin pool play for the American contingent. Team USA competes
with Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Panama and Puerto Rico
for one of four spots–based on pool play records–in the semifinals
Sept. 10. All four countries that advance to the semifinals qualify for
next year’s World Junior Championships. The gold and bronze medal games
are slated for Sept. 11, and while winning gold is a goal of the teams
in attendance, qualifying for the 2006 tournament, which will be held
in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, is the primary objective of all eight teams
in the field.
Cuba has won the last five Pan Am crowns (1997, 1999, 2000, 2001,
2003). Team USA is the two-time defending silver medalist. The
Americans earned the bronze medal in 1997, 1999 and 2000.
The 20 players were selected exclusively from the pool of players 18
and under who competed in the Annual Tournament of Stars held in June
in Joplin, Mo. Following a week-long trials period in Joplin, 26
players reassembled in Atlanta on Aug. 26 for practices and a six-game
exhibition series, both of which served as part of the final evaluation
and selection process for the 20-member roster chosen to play in Mexico.
Youth Team’™s Reign Ends
USA Baseball’™s reign as three-time World Youth (16-and-under)
champions came to a soggy end Aug. 28 in Monterrey, Mexico, as Cuba
dethroned the United States in the gold-medal game, 5-0.
A powerful U.S. lineup had scored 98 runs in winning its previous
seven games at the 11-team tournament, but was no match for Cuban
righthander Freddie Alvarez, who threw a complete-game shutout,
allowing four hits while striking out nine. Alvarez went the distance
despite a 3 1/2-hour rain delay between the fourth and fifth innings.
The U.S. elected to pull its starter, ace righthander Robert Stock,
a rising junior at Agoura (Calif.) High who
sailed through the first three innings before running into trouble in
the fourth, when he gave up three runs. Stock fanned eight in his four
innings of work. He started three games for the U.S., including the
first three innings of a 15-2 win over Japan in the semifinal a day
earlier, and struck out a youth national team record 27 in 14 innings
while going 1-1, 1.29.
“Stock was incredible,” USA Baseball’s Jeff Singer said. “I really
would have liked to see him try and close it out, because before it
started raining, he had dominant stuff.
“This team really came together nicely. They competed well and made improvements in every phase of the game.”
Despite winning the last three World Youth titles, the U.S. had only
a 1-4 record against Cuba in their previous five meetings’"including a
loss in the finals of the 2004 COPABE Pan Am championships, the
qualifying event for this year’™s world tournament.
Outfielder Freddie Freeman, a rising junior at El Modena High in
Villa Park, Calif., was the top offensive performer for Team USA. He
got two of his team’™s four hits in the deciding game and went 17-for-31
overall. He led the team with a .548 average and 16 RBIs, while sharing
the team lead with three home runs.
Stock was Team USA’™s ace, but 6-foot-6 righthander Blake Beavan, a
rising junior at Irving (Texas) High, also was effective, going 3-0,
1.10 overall with 22 strikeouts in 16 innings. He had two complete
games, including a 12-1 quarterfinal win over Taiwan.
Hawaii Wins Little League Title
Catcher Michael Memea completed a stunning comeback for Ewa Beach,
Hawaii, when he drilled a walk-off home run to lead off the seventh
inning and power his West Oahu team to a 7-6 win over defending
champion Curacao in the Little League (11-12) World Series, played in
West Oahu had rallied to tie the game at 6-6 in the bottom of the
sixth inning, by scoring three times, to force extra innings. Memea
then drilled a 3-2 pitch off Curacao reliever Christopher Garia for his
game-winning homer to lift Hawaii to its first-ever Little League
title. Memea, who went 5-for-16 with three homers and eight RBIs in the
tournament, had struck out in his previous two appearances in the
championship game against Garia, who came on in relief in the fourth.
Curacao was bidding to become the first team since Long Beach,
Calif., in 1992-93 to win back-to-back titles. It nearly accomplished
the feat when Sorick Liberia broke a 3-3 tie in the fifth with a
two-run homer and Darren Seferina added a solo shot to give Curacao a
6-3 lead. But Garia couldn’™t make the lead stand up in the sixth, when
Curacao couldn’™t complete a potential game-ending double play.
Hawaii went a perfect 6-0 in the tournament. It beat a team from
Rancho Buena Vista, Calif., 6-1 in the U.S. final to advance to the
Rancho Buena Vista had gone undefeated in district, state and
regional play until losing to Hawaii, largely on the strength of a
dominating performance by pitcher-catcher Kalen Pimentel, who won three
games on the mound, one in which he recorded all 18 outs via strikeouts
(tying a tournament record), and hit grand-slam home runs in two other
games. Tournament rules prohibited Pimentel from pitching against
Hawaii, but he was the winning pitcher as Rancho Buena Vista (5-1) beat
Japan 5-4 in the third-place game.
• West Oahu’™s triumph in the Little League World Series capped a banner summer for youth baseball in Hawaii.
The Oahu All-Stars won the Cal Ripken (11-12) World Series, played
in Aberdeen, Md., a week earlier, defeating defending champion Mexico
1-0 in the final. The Little League World Series and Cal Ripken World
Series are recognized as the world’™s top sanctioned tournaments at the
11-12 year-old age level.
Teams from Hawaii also reached the U.S. final of the Junior League
(13-14) World Series, the championship game of the Senior League
(15-16) World Series and the championship game of the Babe Ruth 13-15
“There’™s a lot of talent in Hawaii,” West Oahu coach Layton Aliviado
said. “Don’™t overlook Hawaii, because in Hawaii the kids are awesome,
they’™re talented. They won’™t overlook us now. We showed them we can