U.S. Makes Strong Showing In Qualifier

Anything can happen in one baseball game, which is part of what makes international baseball so fascinating.

It can lead to travesties like the United States losing a one-run game to Mexico in 2003, leading to its exclusion from the 2004 Games in Athens, or to South Korea going through two perfect rounds in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, only to finish in third place thanks to an ill-timed semifinal loss to eventual champion Japan.

A similar scenario in a less important tournament happened in October, when USA Baseball’s latest professional team lost to the Dominican Republic 7-2 in a semifinal game of the Pan Am Qualifier tournament. The event in Puerto Rico was a qualifier for both the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, and for the next International Baseball Federation World Cup (date and site TBA).

Team USA had dominated pool play, winning nine straight games to qualify for both future tournaments and entered the medal round as the top seed. But against the D.R., the team of non-40-man roster minor leaguers couldn’t muster enough offense against three Dominican pitchers, and a lineup including ex-big leaguers such as Tony Batista, Bernabel Castro and Willie Otanez handled the power arms of American minor leaguers Danny Duffy and Tim Collins (Royals), Andre Lomantagne (Brewers) and Justin De Fratus (Phillies). A rainout in the bronze-medal matchup with Venezuela left the U.S. tied for third.

“The Dominican team was just better than us on that given day,” Team USA manager Ernie Young (White Sox) said. “I know our guys gave it all we had. The way we played in pool play was championship-caliber play. I told our guys, one game, one loss does not mean our team wasn’t the best team. But I’m not saying we were the best team.”

Young has seen it from the other side too, though. In 2000, he was the cleanup hitter for the Olympic team, which was played the underdog role and won the gold medal. Young was a leader on that club that wasn’t necessarily the best team in Sydney, but was the team left standing with the gold at the end, thanks to a complete-game shutout in the gold-medal game with Cuba by Ben Sheets.

This event in Puerto Rico wasn’t of nearly the same import, but Young did get to experience beating Cuba again. In the team’s ninth and final victory, Team USA beat Cuba 4-1, getting a Sheets-like performance from Cubs righthander Chris Archer. While Young is quick to point out that Sheets went the distance, Archer was just as dominant, striking out 10 and walking none while pitching six scoreless, two-hit innings. And even Young admits the current Cuban lineup is deep in talent, perhaps even more offensive than the 2000 club.

“He pounded the strike zone, then he put hitters away with sliders and some changeups,” Young said of Archer. “That was the key; once he was ahead, he put their hitters away.”

Archer did that much of the regular season, going 15-3, 2.34 between two levels, ranking second in the minors in victories and seventh in ERA. Still, he called his performance against Cuba “saving the best for last.”

“Command-wise, I don’t know how hard I was throwing my fastball, but I was nicking it, and I had the fastball, slider and change all working,” he said. “Early counts, I was throwing my slider for strikes, and when I got ahead, I was burying it, and because they had to respect the fastball, I got them to chase.”

Archer said Young shared some stories of his games against Cuba to prepare the team for the rivalry. In 2000, Young started a mini-brawl in a roun-robin game after he was beaned in the back by Cuban flamethrower Maels Rodriguez,. In the gold-medla rematch, though, he hit a two-run single off Rodriguez in the fifth inning to give the U.S. its final 4-0 margin of victory.

“I thought about bringing my gold medal with me, but I left it at home,” Young said. “Instead, I just talked about what it means to wear that USA uniform . . . And I think they know. All these guys definitely also know that doing this means that down the line, maybe not in 2013, but in a future World Baseball Classic, they could be the guys USA Baseball would rely on.”

Don’t rule out 2013, though, not with the talent this club had. Royals prospects Eric Hosmer (.389), Mike Moustakas (team-best eight RBIs) and lefty Mike Montgomery (2-0, 1.80, 14 SO/10 IP) all shined and should establish themselves in the majors by 2012 at the latest. And 19-year-old Mike Trout (Angels) continued his amazing season, batting .350 with a team-best three homers out of the U.S. leadoff spot.

“His transformation from the time we reported to Cary (to USA Baseball headquarters) to the time we got to San Juan was remarkable,” Young said. “In Cary, he seemed tight, like he was trying to do too much. When we came to San Juan, he just matured at such a fast pace. He was unbelievable; he definitely played older than 19. Mentally, he was prepared to play every day.”

Young had his team ready as well, as evidenced by its 9-1 record. In one game, though, the veteran Dominicans were too much for the U.S. team. “I never thought we were out of that game,” Archer said. “When you have the lineup we had, we’d scored five runs in an inning before. With young studs like Hosmer and Moustakas, there was no doubt in my mind we could come back.”

“They had some veterans who have been around,” Young said of Dominican relievers Juan Perez and Dario Veras. “They knew what they wanted to do, and we had inexperience on our side. But the talent we had on our side was phenomenal.”

Sometimes, in international baseball, talent doesn’t always win.