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THUNDER BAY, Ontario, Canada--Through three games and three days of play at the U18 World Baseball Softball Confederation World Cup, Team USA has separated itself from the rest of the competition, and the three-time defending champions look poised to head in that same direction once more.
Bulldozing through its opponents, Team USA’s latest victim was Mexico, which it took down 6-0 in a rain-shortened, six-inning affair Sunday night, making it the only undefeated team in its pool and securing a berth in the super round of the tournament.
"That's the goal," Team USA manager Andy Stankiewicz said. "It's one step at a time. We knew that we had to get to the super round, and it's exciting. It's international baseball, so there are a lot of different elements coming at you, with the weather, and sometimes the umpires have a little bit different strike zones, and we're seeing it all. So it's been an abbreviated look, but the guys are starting to understand what it's going to take to be competitive down the stretch.
The man on center stage for Team USA Sunday was Matthew Liberatore, a 6-foot-5, 185-pound lefthander from Mountain Ridge High in Glendale, Ariz., who used his low-90s fastball--complemented by a solid curveball and changeup--to hold Mexico to one hit in six innings. He walked three, struck out 12 and never allowed a runner into scoring position.
"The bottom line is, he was getting outs, and that's what he's done for us," Stankiewicz said. "His changeup was working well and he was commanding his fastball, and he threw a couple nice breaking balls, and that's what we need out of him."
Added Liberatore: "My fastball command was pretty good, and I kept my curveball in my back pocket until the fourth or fifth inning, but it felt really good when I finally broke it out. And my command with that was really good too."
The American offense had just two hits, but used eight walks, four hit batsmen and three errors to create opportunities--which they capitalized on. After striking out 23 times in Saturday's game against Japan, Stankiewicz was happy to see his team go down on strikes just six times against Mexico.
"The guys are starting to realize that we've got to put the ball in play," Stankiewicz said. "We cut down on the strikeouts today, which was good to see, but still, we've got to get better. We've got to commit to contact . . .
“Anytime these guys can put some good at-bats together, it can gain some confidence for them. It was better today for sure, but we know that to do well down the road here, we've still got to get better."
Liberatore believes that his team's success has also made it a target, but he couldn't be enjoying the experience more.
"I felt like we already (had a target on our backs) coming in, having won the past three years in a row,” Liberatore said, “but the way we've played and the kind of pressure we've put on teams so far has enlarged that target on our backs, so I like it . . .
"There's no greater accomplishment than being able to represent your country doing what you love. It's a pretty cool feeling to go out there and pitch wearing USA across my chest and on my hat. And I definitely want to win a gold medal--that would be unreal."
World Cup Notes
Rounding out Team USA's group in Thunder Bay, both Japan and Cuba sit right behind the Americans in the standings with two wins apiece, while Mexico, Netherlands and South Africa each have two losses.
In Group A, South Korea has also secured its spot in the super round with its third win on Sunday against the host Team Canada. Taiwan and Australia are just behind them with two wins each, while Canada, Italy and Nicaragua each have two losses and are in danger of being relegated to the consolation round.
"They have to win," said Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada's director of national teams. "There's no margin anymore. We've got to win games and we've got to win them all. If we don't, we're not going to be playing for anything meaningful."