Thunder Bay is only one day away.
For the 20 players on USA Baseball’s 18U National Team, this is the culmination of a process that began back in June at the Tournament of Stars. After playing a five-day tournament with a field of 80 of the nation’s top players at the National Training Complex in Cary, N.C., 40 players were invited to the 18U National Team trials, which began on Aug. 19 in Minneapolis and ended five days later with 20 players sent home and 20 players named to the 2017 National Team.
For the 20 players selected Thunder Bay, Canada, is the final destination that they’ve been eyeing since they got their initial invite to the Tournament of Stars.
It’s also where the real work begins, including the work of defending USA Baseball’s gold-medal streak in 18U competition, dating back to 2012.
Team USA will play one game a day starting on Sept. 1 and going through Sept. 5, playing each team in its group for the tournament: Netherlands, Japan, Mexico, South Africa and Cuba. After the group stage (or opening round, as it is called on the official WBSC website) teams will get one day off before competing in the Super Round, or Consolation Round, depending on performance in the first stage of the tournament.
Ahead of the tournament, Baseball America caught up with 18U Manager Andy Stankiewicz (also the head coach for Grand Canyon) as he was on the bus to Thunder Bay, to talk about the tournament and the state of the American team, which won each of its first four tune-up games—two against Iowa Western JC, one against the Minnesota Blizzard high school travel team and one against Madison (Wis.) JC—with a combined score of 28-4.
“It’s a good start,” Stankiewicz said of the four victories. “The encouraging thing, as you can tell from the numbers, we've pitched pretty well right out of the gate. Our pitching staff right from the first game to the last game last night, we've been really consistent on the mound, which you know is crucial. So that's great.”
Over the first four games, the U.S. pitching staff posted a 1.06 ERA, while striking out 51 batters and walking just six. All four runs allowed were earned. Six of the nine pitchers who have thrown so far for Team USA haven’t allowed a run, including righthanders Ethan Hankins, Mason Denaburg, Brandon Dieter and Cole Wilcox, and lefthanders Matthew Liberatore and Joseph Menefee. (View the entire roster here.)
While Stankiewicz and pitching coach Ricky Meinhold (St. Louis Cardinals) have yet to determine an exact rotation, they have an understanding of several players’ probable roles at this point.
“I think you try to map it out as best you can,” Stankiewicz said, “and you try to establish the arms early and then you try to figure out, OK as things go great—which you hope they do—and guys give you six innings, then you got your bullpen guys.
“We've kind of looked at Menefee, Denaburg (and righthander) J.T. Ginn as guys we'd like to use probably at the back end.”
Both Denaburg and Ginn have high-powered fastballs in the mid-90s and sharp sliders, in addition to an attacking mentality on the mound that Stankiewicz likes in a late-game role. Meanwhile, the southpaw Menefee can come in and pitch against dangerous lefthanded hitters, without being limited strictly to a lefthanded specialist role.
“We can't afford that really with a nine-man staff, so we need to get some length out of him,” Stankiewicz said of Menefee. “We just feel like (Menefee, Denaburg and Ginn) fit that mold on the back end of what we're looking for to close out some games.”
That leaves seven pitchers to be used as starters and/or middle relievers depending on how the tournament unfolds: righthanders Hankins, Dieter, Liberatore, Wilcox, Landon Marceaux and Kumar Rocker, and lefthander Ryan Weathers.
In addition to striking out six batters in five innings during the tune-up stage, Dieter is a player who can impact the game at any position other than catcher and will be relied on off the bench as well as on the mound.
“He's what you need in this situation when you've got a 20-man roster, because of his versatility, but on the mound he's been lights out,” Stankiewicz said. “You look at the big power arms that we're going to start, and we certainly plan to get Dieter on the mound in a start. We're going to try to find that matchup that we feel is a matchup he can give us, five, six, seven strong innings and hopefully spell our bullpen and one of our starters. He's definitely going to be on the mound.
“When he's on the mound, as a coach you feel pretty comfortable because you know that he's going to throw strikes, that he can field his position, that he's going to hold runners. There's a lot of things there in place that suggest this guy could be as good a starting pitcher as anybody on our staff.”
With nine players strictly on the roster as pitchers (although Denaburg can be used as an emergency catcher if needed) that leaves just 11 players to fill out the lineup—eight starters and three bench players, highlighting just how thin the rosters are for, potentially, nine games in 10 days.
The defensive alignment for the U.S. team will most likely look like the following:
- C — Will Banfield/Anthony Seigler
- 1B — Triston Casas
- 2B — Carter Young
- 3B — Nolan Gorman
- SS — Brice Turang
- LF — Alek Thomas
- CF — Mike Siani
- RF — Jarred Kelenic
- DH — Raynel Delgado/Brandon Dieter
“I think as a staff we're excited about the offense,” Stankiewicz said. “It's gotten stronger from the first game out. And I think guys are just trying to find their roles and understand what we're trying to do, as opposed to maybe what they're used to doing, trying to hit the ball long and far.
“Now we need to play with what coach (Gregg) Ritchie and coach (Bill) Mosiello here have been hammering: team offense, team offense, team offense. Getting on base, stealing bags, driving in runs by just putting the ball in play. Not trying to do too much.”
After making the team as the youngest player invited to National Team trials (and the sole member of the 2019 draft class), Carter Young has seemingly solidified his starting spot at second base alongside the No. 1 high school prospect in the country, Brice Turang, while making his case as a bat at the top of the lineup as well. Young led all U.S. players with a .385 average (5-for-13) throughout the four tune-up games, hitting one double and walking five times compared to only one strikeout.
The last three tune-up games the first four batters of the lineup were Siani, Young, Gorman and Kelenic, while the second half of the lineup appears to be more in flux at this point.
Barring injuries, every starter aside from catchers listed above is likely to be how Team USA takes the field. The starting catcher will depend on who’s starting, though rest will certainly factor into the decision as well.
“We have two great defensive catchers in Banfield and Seigler, so we feel really good about that,” Stankiewicz said. “You look at Banfield, who's caught Hankins and Rocker all summer. Pitchers get comfortable pitching to certain guys, I understand that. And so Banfield does a great job behind the plate . . . Seigler has done a great job as well. So we're going to kind of mix and match that a little bit.”
At DH, the coaching staff likes Delgado’s ability to hit from both sides with pop. He figures to be a regular at that spot in the lineup with Dieter drawing more responsibility as a two-way player—though both Delgado and Dieter have the ability to play all the infield positions, as well as outfield.
“If you're not starting, you've got to be ready,” Stankiewicz said. “We're a pinch-runner or a pulled hammy away from you getting into the ballgame. So you've got to be ready to go.”
With the team finalized and roles seemingly solidified, all that’s left for the team now is to go out and play. The goal is to win every game on the schedule. To back up the 2016 18U team’s performance at the COPABE Pan American Championships in Mexico with another gold medal. To become just the second country to win four straight gold medals in the World Cup.
“I'm going to do my best to get everybody on the field as much as possible, but at the same time, we've got to come back with a gold medal,” Stankiewicz said. “They've been playing all summer, so your body I think starts to wear down a little bit, but I'm sure putting a USA jersey on and playing in a World Cup—I think adrenaline should take care of that.”