The first round of the 22-nation World Cup is complete. After four days of games at five sites in Europe, Team USA is 2-1 with its 8-0 victory Saturday against China, a loss that eliminated the Chinese one year after they seemed like an emerging baseball nation with a strong Olympic showing in Beijing.
Team USA got 11 strikeouts in seven shutout innings by lefthander Trevor Reckling (Angels), who gave up just three hits and three walks. The Americans broke open a close 2-0 game with six runs in the eighth, with the big hits coming on a two-run single by Terry Tiffee (Phillies) and a three-run homer by Josh Kroeger (White Sox).
Tiffee also homered in the second inning for a 2-0 lead and had four RBIs on the day.
Joining China among the eliminated clubs are four other winless teams: Sweden, Croatia and the Czech Republic, which were all hosts of first-round games, as well as South Africa. The other 1-2 team eliminated was Germany, also a first-round host, whose only win came against China and which was beaten 12-1 Saturday by Venezuela.
The other 14 nations move on to the second round of pool play, being held in the Netherlands and Italy. Those two nations got first-round byes and now join the fray.
Team USA is in Italy with the host country and six others: Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands Antilles and Taiwan. Canada and Australia have been the strongest performers so far in the Cup, as Japan didn’t send a team of big leaguers or anything close to this event.
The Netherlands pool also includes Cuba, Great Britain, South Korea, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Spain, the only first-round host country to advance.
Some of Saturday’s highlights:
• Spain led Cuba 4-3 until Cuba’s Yosvany Peraza hit a three-run homer to put the Cubans on top. Peraza passed a baserunner while running the bases, so it went in the books as a two-run homer and a 5-4 Cuba victory. Spain advanced anyway.
• Nicaragua improved to 3-0 by beating Japan 8-4, as third baseman Jimmy Morales hit his fifth homer in three games. Though his name was usually listed as Jimmy Gonzalez back then, Morales played in the Dodgers system from 1998-2000.
• Former UNC Wilmington catcher Magnus Pilegard, Sweden’s best hitter, homered to give the host Swedes a 1-0 lead in front of 2,100 fans in Sundbyberg, but that was as good as it would get for the home team. Canada pounded out a 19-1 victory, highlighted by a grand slam from new Royals farmhand Tim Smith.
• Attendance was excellent by European standards for the first round. Friday’s game between Germany and the U.S. drew nearly twice as many fans as a local soccer match the same night. Sweden’s 2,100 fans Saturday was a capacity crowd, and Spain had overflow crowds (capacity is 1,500) Friday and Saturday, according to IBAF officials. There was even an overflow in Prague on Saturday night, with more than 2,500 on hand.
• Eduardo Perez is on leave from ESPN duties and is managing Puerto Rico’s entry.