When the dust settles, the 2008 USA Baseball collegiate national team might be remembered as the program's best ever. For certain, no national team has ever topped or will ever top Team USA's 1.000 winning percentage.
Team USA finished its 2008 summer tour with an undefeated record for the first time ever with a thrilling 1-0 win over Japan in 12 innings Sunday, clinching the gold medal at the FISU World Championship in the Czech Republic. Team USA finished the summer a perfect 24-0 and established a new national team record for lowest ERA (0.88, eclipsing the previous mark of 1.29 set in 2003). Remarkably, the Americans did not allow more than two earned runs in any game and threw six shutouts, capped by the 12-inning shutout of Japan on Sunday.
Vanderbilt lefthander Mike Minor came up huge in the clincher, just as he did in the championship game of Haarlem Baseball Week against Cuba. This time, Minor held Japan scoreless for 9 2/3 innings, allowing just four hits and no walks while striking out nine. He faced the minimum 27 batters through nine innings before leaving in a first-and-third jam in the 10th. Oklahoma State's Tyler Lyons relieved him and induced a groundball fielder's choice to get out of the inning. Minor finished the summer with a team-leading 36 innings, going 3-0, 0.75 with 37 strikeouts and 13 walks.
Team USA's offense rapped out 12 hits in the game but left 10 runners on base before finally breaking through in the 12th. Fresno State's Tommy Mendonca led off the frame with a single down the left-field line, and Miami's Ryan Jackson sacrificed him to second. After Louisiana State's Micah Gibbs was intentionally walked, Florida's Matt den Dekker singled through the right side, but Mendonca was thrown out at the plate. But with two outs, Auburn's Hunter Morris delivered a pinch-hit, broken-bat single to center to easily score Gibbs with the winning run. Morris also delivered a walk-off homer to beat Taiwan in the final game of pool play Thursday.
"Look at what Morris did these last few games," national team general manager Eric Campbell said. "He hasn't gotten too many at-bats since (Jared) Clark joined this team; he had mostly been shaking hands in the dugout. But he got the game-winning RBI in two of our last three games. I'm so happy that Hunter was the guy."
Baylor righthander Kendal Volz came on to pitch the bottom of the 12th and allowed the tying run to reach third base with one out. But Volz got a strikeout and a ground out to end the game, securing his eighth save in eight opportunities this summer. He finished with a 0.00 ERA, 16 strikeouts and five walks in 14 innings over 13 appearances.
"What a great game; 12 innings, 1-0 . . . it doesn't get much better
than that," Volz said. "This game had so many ups and downs for both
teams. There were some frustrating moments and some great defensive
"This team played so great all summer long. We got (12) hits tonight and just couldn't get a run across until the very end. Finally we got a ball to bounce our way, and that's really the way it was for this team all summer."
Volz, Lyons and Missouri's Kyle Gibson all came up big in the later innings as they have all summer for Team USA. The trio, which pitched almost exclusively in relief, combined to allow just two earned runs in 46 innings on the summer.
"The key to this team was the pitching, and even moreso the bullpen," Team USA coach Rob Walton said. "Guys like Lyons and Gibson and Volz, who are all starters in their own programs, accepting roles in the bullpen was big. Their doing that probably was the biggest key of the summer."
The offense benefited from timely hitting all summer long, though just one regular (California's Blake Smith at .327) finished with an average above .300. Mendonca and Gibbs combined to go 7-for-8 Sunday.
The bats did have a couple of big outbursts this summer. Most notably, they exploded for a record 30 runs and a record 12 homers in a 30-1 win against Lithuania in FISU pool play last Sunday. Gibbs, Morris and Coastal Carolina's Scott Woodward each slugged a pair of homers in that one, tying the Team USA individual record for homers in a game.
Team USA did take two losses in its trials phase, when playing in the New England Collegiate League—take a bow, Pittsfield (Mass.) Dukes and North Shore (Mass.) Navigators. But once the final roster was named, the team didn't lose. Whether with its bats or its arms, Team USA simply found ways to win every time it took the field.
"This team's record speaks for itself," Campbell said. "Every year is special, but I don't know how we'll be able to top what this team did. They finished 24-0, they beat Cuba's best team twice, they beat Japan three times, and they won two gold medals. It speaks volumes for college baseball, not just in the U.S. but around the world. This team beat a lot of good teams this summer, and four or five of the teams here at FISU easily could have won this event."