After the fifth inning of Wednesday's game between USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team and Cuba, the game paused while the grounds crew raked the infield and the umpires got water. During the brief intermission, manager George Horton gathered his team for a meeting.
Cuba held a 1-0 lead in the decisive fifth game of the series. Team USA was attempting to win its first ever series in Cuba and finish its summer tour on a high note.
"After all the grind we've been through, we've had some challenges," Horton said. "What if I told you we're one run down with four innings to play and the chance to do something that's never been done in USA Baseball history?"
The players agreed they were in a good position. Team USA quickly went to work and tied the game in the sixth inning when outfielder Jeren Kendall (Vanderbilt) drove in a run on a groundout.
The score was still tied when the eighth inning began. Horton called on Keston Hiura (UC Irvine) to pinch hit to lead off the inning against lefthander Livan Moinelo. Hiura drove a home run over the left field wall to give the CNT the lead in dramatic fashion.
Horton said it was an easy decision to pinch hit Hiura for catcher Mike Rivera (Florida), even though it meant sacrificing some defense in a close game.
"Keston had really caught the attention of the Cubans," Horton said. "They walked him intentionally two games in a row to get to some pretty good hitters. As a leadoff hitter, you can't walk him or pitch him too careful. You lose it on the defensive side, which is strength of our team, but I thought it was pretty much a no brainer. Athletes make you look good and he took a great at bat there."
With the lead in hand, lefthander Ricky Tyler Thomas (Fresno State) closed out the victory with two scoreless innings. He earned the win, throwing 5 1/3 scoreless innings out of the bullpen. He struck out four batters, walked one and held Cuba to two hits.
For the first time, the CNT won a series in Cuba. The two teams have played an annual series since 2012, alternating home field advantage. In the CNT’s first two trips to the island, Cuba won the 2012 series and swept Team USA in 2014. The CNT has won both series that have been played on American soil.
Horton, the 2003 College Coach of the Year, has won two national championships during his coaching career. He said winning the CNT’s first series in Cuba felt comparable.
"We didn't dogpile and stuff, but for me, on a personal note, it felt like a national championship to me," Horton said. "I don't think it was on the same level of accomplishment to the players, but they know how good Cuba is and they know what was at stake and they know what they put into it."
Team USA ended the summer 11-7-1, including a 7-7 record in its international tour against Taiwan, Japan and Cuba. The CNT split its series in Taiwan and lost the decisive fifth game of the Japan series in extra innings.
Horton said the tour was taxing, as Team USA travelled from California, where it held its trails in late June, to Taiwan then Japan and then Cuba in the span of four weeks. The travel was exacerbated by some long bus rides in Japan and Cuba because the series moved through multiple locations in the country.
But Horton said the players never complained about the grind of the summer.
"I don't know if I've ever been around a group with as tough a mindset and as low maintenance as this group," he said. "They had every right to complain about things that were out of our hands. But not a peep. Not a peep all summer complaining about the food, the bus rides or the challenges of the tour. I tip my cap. You try to get makeup and ability when you select an all-star team like that. I commend the players' parents because I didn't teach them that. It was one of the most impressive things about the group for sure. "
Team USA also had some standout performances on the field. Lefthander/first baseman Brendan McKay (Louisville) led the team in hitting, posting a slash line of .326/.434/.372. Outfielder T.J. Friedl (Nevada) hit .290/.362/.452 and Kendall finished the summer .290/.329/.536.
Pitching was a clear strength of the CNT, as it posted a team ERA of 1.81 and held opponents to a .197 average. Righthander J.B. Bukauskas (North Carolina) held opponents to just one run (unearned) in 21 2/3 innings, striking out 21 batters and walking three. Both righthander Alex Faedo (Florida) and Thomas also struck out 21 batters, and righthander Alex Lange (Louisiana State) didn't allow a run in nine innings all summer.
Horton thanked USA Baseball president Mike Gaski, CEO Paul Seiler and general manager Eric Campbell for the opportunity to serve as manager this year. He said he is proud of what the CNT accomplished this summer and hopes future teams will be able to build on their accomplishment.
"Maybe we can get a streak going where we don't lose any series with Japan and Cuba for a long time," Horton said. "That's easier said than done. Those are two really good baseball teams."