USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team traveled to Cuba on Friday for its last series of the summer. Team USA went 4-5 in its first two series, splitting four games in Taiwan and dropping its series at Japan, 3-2.
Manager George Horton (Oregon) said after not winning either of the first two series, Team USA wants to finish the summer strong and is anxious to get back on the field on Saturday in Cuba.
"It's not going to be easy, but our group is tough-minded and resilient," Horton said.
The CNT is coming off a tough loss to Japan in the final game of its series. After Team USA lost the first two games of the series, it rebounded with back-to-back victories to set up a Game 5 rubber match. After falling behind 4-0, catcher Evan Skoug (Texas Christian) tied the game with a grand slam in the sixth inning. The game remained tied until the 10th inning, when Japan won, 5-4, on a walk-off sacrifice fly.
Horton said the CNT missed "a golden opportunity" for a rare series win in Japan. But he is pleased with the way the team has improved so far this month, adapting to unfamiliar surroundings.
"They've been great educational experiences, and not just what's going on the field," Horton said. "This was the first time I've ever been to Taiwan or Japan and the same thing can be said about the kids. Everything about the style of play to umpiring to things they have to deal with is educational."
As always, Team USA's hitters have also had to adjust to playing with wood bats after a spring of swinging metal bats. Horton said they have gotten better every day.
First baseman/lefthander Brendan McKay (Lousiville) leads the CNT in hitting with a .355/.475/.419 line. Skoug, who is hitting .321/.406/.607 with two home runs in 11 games, won the "Fighting Spirit" award in the Japan series. Third baseman Jake Burger (Missouri State) is hitting .326/.408/.465 and won the batting title during the Japan series.
After the final game in Japan, Burger said he was honored to be named batting champion after going 6-for-17 in the five games.
"It is great hitting in a lineup like this where you have guys one through nine that can drive the ball," he said. "It kind of takes the pressure off of you, whereas in college you are the guy."
Team USA has thrived on the mound, posting a team ERA of 2.08 in 14 games. Righthander J.B. Bukauskas (North Carolina) has struck out 18 batters in 16 2/3 innings, while holding opponents to one unearned run on five hits and two walks. Righthander Alex Faedo (Florida) has been nearly as good, whiffing 18 batters in 12 innings, while limiting opponents to one run on 10 hits and one walk.
Bukauskas and Faedo are expected to be two of the first college pitchers picked in the 2017 draft. But Team USA's staff goes much deeper than the highly touted righthanders. Nearly everyone on the staff has pitched well, adapting well to the piggyback system the CNT uses.
"It's kind of an unusual situation, the way we chose to do it with the piggyback format," Horton said. "Some of these guys are pitching in relief that were starters. It's a tribute to them and their versatility."
Team USA will need its pitchers to continue their strong run in Cuba, where the CNT is 2-8 since resuming an annual friendly series in 2012. The home team has won the series in each of the last four years, including last year when Team USA won three games to two. Last year's series was highlighted by a combined no-hitter in the opener, which the CNT won, 2-0.
Horton is hopeful his team can build on results like that, as well as the experience he gained against Cuba as an assistant coach on the 2012 CNT. He is pleased they will get to practice once in Cuba before playing, a luxury the 2012 team did not have.
Horton said during that practice, Team USA would switch its focus to Cuba and trying to finish the summer tour with a big victory.
"We have one day of practice and that's when we'll switch gears and talk about how they play," Horton said. "It's a different style than the Japanese style. And there are other challenges culturally over there."