THUNDER BAY, ONT.—When Team USA stepped onto the field at Baseball Central in Thunder Bay to open its berth at the U18 World Baseball Softball Confederation World Cup, it was the team from the Netherlands that gave it the spark it needed to get going.
Netherlands opened the scoring in the top of the first, when a double followed a leadoff walk, and the early deficit was all the Americans needed to fire them up.
"I'm happy that's what happened," said Team USA right fielder Jarred Kelenic, after walking his team off in the eighth with an 11-1 mercy-rule win. "I definitely think right off the bat, for them to come out and hit a run-scoring double like that, it motivated us and we realized, ‘Hey, these guys are coming ready to play.’
“So to have that double down the line and for them to get a run right away, it only helped us throughout the game."
The first-inning hit was the only one 17-year-old American righthander Ethan Hankins would allow, using his mid-90s fastball to get ahead early, and following up with his curveball to put them away, striking out 13 in six innings.
"I can't describe how blessed I feel to be in this situation right here, starting Game 1 right out of the gate," Hankins said. "It's a pretty awesome feeling, and something I'll for sure never forget . . . Netherlands is a good team, and I didn't expect to go out there and dominate. I was just trying to do my job and put my team in a situation to win.
"I knew that they were going to be good right out of the gate. I didn't know that they were going to come out firing like that. They definitely forced me to settle in, make some adjustments, and do my job."
USA manager Andy Stankiewicz shared the school of thought that the immediate offensive outburst from his team's opponent was—in retrospect—exactly what they needed to get the tournament going.
"The start wasn't as clean as you'd like, and that's good," Stankiewicz said. "The more we get punched, and the better we respond, the better it is for us. We did a really good job of responding after they scored early, and (Hankins) got his groove going, was pitching off his fastball, and attacking with it. So we're happy."
Following a summer of showcase circuits, one concern for Team USA was whether the squad would be able to make the switch quickly and adjust to the team atmosphere that international baseball requires, and it doesn't seem to be having any difficulty so far.
"This is my second year with Team USA, but every single day I get to put this jersey on, it's more and more of a blessing," Kelenic said. "I was just talking to the coaches during the game about how crazy it is how different this baseball is than with my summer team. Every single pitch matters, every single swing matters, and when you're out here, you're playing for the 19 other guys. You're not playing for yourself or the name on your back—you're playing for the USA."
When Team USA's bats broke out on Friday, they broke out in a big way, totaling 13 hits in the shortened game. As the U.S. team heads into the second day of play at the World Cup, it will look to keep the hits coming against Japan, the top-seeded team in the tournament.
"Offensively, it became kind of contagious," Stankiewicz said. "Once we started to put some good at-bats together, everybody wanted to joint the party a little bit. So getting off scoring 11 in the first (game), hopefully guys can just relax and stay within themselves and not try to do too much going forward. If we do that, we're going to have good results."
Notes from around the tournament:
Joining Team USA in the win column after the first day of play in Thunder Bay are Japan, taking down Mexico 10-1; Italy, defeating Nicaragua 4-2; South Korea, with a 4-1 win over Australia; Cuba, which won 15-2 against South Africa; and Taiwan, taking down host Team Canada 7-6 in 10 innings.
After the heartbreaking loss for the Canadians, Baseball Canada's director of national teams Greg Hamilton shared advice with his team that could easily be applied to any of the teams after their first contests of this World Cup.
"Let it go quick," Hamilton said. "It's Game 1 of the tournament, there's a lot of tournament left, and if we're going to have a lot of tournament left, we're going to have to let this go real fast . . . The most important thing is to take care of business tomorrow. We've got a team that we need to be ready for, and if we are, then you're 1-1 and right back in the tournament."