— ⚾ WBSC (@WBSC) September 8, 2017
If Ethan Hankins was sleep-deprived, he didn’t show it Friday.
Behind the righthander, Team USA locked up its spot in the World Baseball Softball Confederation U18 World Cup gold medal game Sunday with a tense, 2-0 victory over Korea Friday morning.
“Most of us only actually got four or five hours of sleep because we weren't able to get in bed until 1,” said Hankins, who was dominant in striking out 14 in Friday’s start. “We were dreading it. But we were all excited to the point that we knew this was our biggest game that we've had yet.”
Less than 12 hours after wrapping up an 8-3 win over Canada, the Americans played their most difficult matchup so far in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. The Korean team entered Friday’s game with a 6-0 record—matching the U.S.—and righthander Been Gwak was almost as difficult to score on as Hankins, who threw six shutout innings.
Hankins worked off of a lively fastball to strike out the side in four innings and finished with 14 strikeouts in six innings, allowing just two hits and one walk. As his outing progressed, Hankins began to rely more his curveball, which became more consistent with use and showed sharp biting action.
“I felt good,” Hankins said. “I tried to get ahead with my fastball, that was the biggest thing. And they're really disciplined up there at the plate and they have really good eyes. I was seeing early that they weren't going to chase anything up or off the plate or even in. So I kind of just had to meet the bat. It was kind of rough on the pitch count just because they were so disciplined up there and I didn't get the swing and misses that I wanted, but I made adjustments with my fastball and curveball as the outing went on.
“My biggest thing (with the curveball) was I was going to try to keep that in my back pocket until later in the outing. And that's why I didn't really throw it until, I think it was the second or third inning maybe. My biggest thing was being able to flip that over for strikes a little bit. And get them to swing at that after going through the lineup one time and all they had seen was a fastball. So that was huge for me.”
After two outings in Thunder Bay, Hankins has pitched 12 innings and struck out 27 compared to three walks—good for a 67.2 strikeout percentage—and has allowed just three hits and one earned run.
The four hours of sleep that Hankins got didn’t faze him. He was eager to pitch, and that fervor was obvious as the Forsyth Central High (Cumming, Ga.) product attacked with his usual rapid tempo.
“You love the fact that he wants to work fast, which is great,” USA manager Andy Stankiewicz said. “But at the same time, it's about a rhythm on the mound . . . I think sometimes emotionally he gets a little wound up. I think he just needs to take some deep breaths and settle in.
“And he did that though. He walked only one guy. He was behind in the count a lot, but he had enough moxie to stay in it and make big pitches when he had to. He's done a wonderful job for us.”
Prior to the matchup, the Americans were preparing for one of two righthanders who their advanced scouting information had identified as Korea’s best arms. One of those was Gwak. And he came exactly as advertised.
“Man he's good,” Stankiewicz said. “(A) competitive young man, and he moves the ball in and out, he'll go away, away and then bring a nice hard fastball in and then bring a changeup away to our lefties. Man he's tough.”
While Gwak didn’t have the power stuff that Hankins did—pitching more in the 88-90 mph range than mid-90s—he found success by changing locations and mixing in a devastating changeup that allowed him to rack up nine strikeouts over 8.1 innings—shutting out the Americans until the top of the eighth inning.
Watching from the dugout, Hankins admired Gwak’s confidence in going to his offspeed pitches so consistently while behind in counts and with runners on (the Americans left 11 runners on base in this game).
“(Gwak) noticed that we are really aggressive fastball hitters,” Hankins said. “So he would come in soft with the changeup or curveballs—even in 3-1 or 3-2 counts without a base open. And that was pretty impressive. Because I for sure don't think I would have done that.”
Eventually, Team USA found a way to crack Gwak, but it needed help. Michael Siani reached on an error, Jarred Kelenic singled and Anthony Seigler was hit by a pitch. A passed ball allowed Siani to score the first run, and then in the ninth the U.S. made it 2-0 on Nolan Gorman’s double followed by Brice Turang’s RBI single through the middle.
Tennessee lefthander Ryan Weathers worked 2.2 scoreless innings in relief of Hankins, striking out four and walking two, and Mississippi righthander J.T. Ginn entered the game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth—with two runners on—to strike out Korean center fielder Junhwan Jang (who entered the game with a .429/.556/.857 triple slash) on four pitches to ensure a spot in the gold medal game.
Before that, though, Team USA has one more Super Round matchup. On Saturday the Americans will take on Australia, again at 9 a.m. ET, with California righthander Brandon Dieter scheduled to start.
“We want to win first and foremost,” Stankiewicz said. “We want to take the field with a desire to get a W, so we'll do that. But at the same time, we have to make sure we're in the best possible position going into Sunday's game. One of the reasons that we brought Brandon was for this possibility. An innings-eater, a guy who can come in and pound the zone.
“He's obviously a really good pitcher, so it's not like we're losing anything (with him on the mound). We'll just try to get some small innings of work out of the bullpen, just so we can try to make sure guys are in a good spot for Sunday.”
Before that, though, team USA has to catch up on something.
“We’re gonna take a few naps,” Hankins said “And probably going to hit the sack early.”