USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team's summer journey will take this year's crop of the best young players in the college ranks around the globe to face elite foreign competition.
But before head coach Dave van Horn (Arkansas), his assistants and USA Baseball organizers can begin to concern themselves with the teams they will face, they first have to assemble a squad.
Players will gather in North Carolina in June and then will play nine games in nine days against all-star, select and Coastal Plain League opponents as part of the annual Red, White and Blue Tour. While winning is of course preferred, the primary goal of the exhibitions is for the coaches and organizers to learn about their team as they cut the 33-man roster to 24.
“I told Dave Van Horn, everything we do before July 1 is just to get ready for July 1. It's to get ready for the Taiwan series," Collegiate National Team general manager Eric Campbell said. “When he's in the (Coastal) Plain League, I want him to try different things. If we have to give hitters extra swings in practice and they need to rest that night, I want him to do that. I want us to tinker with guys playing different positions.
“If we get beat, we get beat. We couldn't care less. We're going to play competitive baseball from first pitch to last pitch, but we're going to experiment a little bit."
Van Horn said the slicing and dicing of the roster from 33 to 24 would not be based on talent alone. Health and fatigue are both factors that may result in fresher players making the team over perhaps tired but more talented ones.
“There may be some pitchers that are a lot more fresh, their arms are in better shape, they're not tired, they're not pitched out," said Van Horn, who served as an assistant for the team in 2011. “There may be guys that we've invited that are tired and don't throw well when they get to camp because of that."
The team's final roster will be finalized after the team's final exhibition game, a June 29 contest with the Peninsula Pilots. Just 13 spots have already been guaranteed:
Righthanders: Ryan Burr (Arizona State), Riley Ferrell (Texas Christian), James Kaprielian (UCLA), Jake Lemoine (Houston), Carson Fulmer (Vanderbilt).
Lefthander: Nathan Kirby (Virginia).
Catcher: Chris Okey (Clemson).
Infielders: Alex Bregman (Louisiana State), Dansby Swanson (Vanderbilt), Blake Trahan (Louisiana-Lafayette).
Outfielders: D.J. Stewart (Florida State).
From there, America's team will head back to its official home in Cary, N.C., to begin a five-game Friendship Series with Taiwan's national team that will span across North Carolina. After one game at the National Training Complex, the teams will load their respective buses and head to Shelby (July 2), Charlotte (July 3), and eventually finish with a pair of games at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park (July 4-5).
It will be the first time since 2008 that Taiwan will trek to American soil to take on the college national team. The United States is 84-14 against Taiwan since the two first met in July 1984 and it is 63-6 against Taiwan while playing on home turf.
“The Chinese Taipei Baseball Association appreciates and values the friendship that we enjoy with USA Baseball," Richard Lin, secretary general of the Chinese Taipei Baseball Association, said in a press release. “Re-establishing our yearly exchange with the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team is an important part of our senior baseball program's development."
The red, white and blue will then take on Japan in another Friendship Series from July 6-8, which will be the final set of games for the team on American soil this summer.
Because it is only a three-game set, and not the normal five-game series international squads play, the teams are not considering it a full series. However, there is no doubt the Americans want to respond well after losing last year's series 3-2 in Tokyo.
Part of the challenge of the summer home schedule will be the two Asian adversaries, but the other part will be generating excitement locally for the national team.
“It is a letdown sometimes when we go into a stadium and there's not fans," Campbell said. “Those are the days that create more challenges than others. Those are the days that our coaching staff has to work the hardest. When the guys are in our uniform and they walk into an excited stadium, you never have to get the guys up. That takes care of itself."
The United States-Japan matchup pits the top two international teams, according to the International Baseball Federation, against each other. Taiwan is ranked fourth internationally by the IBAF, and America's final two summer opponents, the Netherlands and Cuba, are ranked sixth and third, respectively.
After the Japan series, Team USA travels to the Netherlands for the Haarlem Honkbal Tournament, with its opener July 11. A four-team tournament, the U.S. squad will play Japan, Taiwan and the Netherlands twice each before the four are seeded and play in semifinal games on the July 19. The winner of the two semifinal games will face off on July 20 for the title.
“The Honkbal tournament, they sell that thing out," Campbell said. “It's passionate, it's every two years. Every game there is going to be electric, even our afternoon games."
For the second straight year, the national team's summer season will finish up against the Cuban national team. This year, however, the two teams will meet up in Havana, and not North Carolina as they did a year ago.
The U.S. swept all five games from Cuba last year, the first five-game sweep ever for the U.S. in the series and just its third victory in 12 all-time series since 1987.
“What I'm really looking forward to is playing in Cuba," Van Horn said. “All the history there with the Cuban national team, all the superstars they've put out over the years, the stories that have been told. I think that's going to be a major, major challenge playing on their soil."
No matter if the season is broken down by series, by opponent or looked at on a grand scale, Van Horn's objectives for the summer are clear: “Showcase our players, our team, represent the United States in a first-class manner," he said. “And, obviously we want to win a lot of games while we're doing that."