— ⚾ WBSC (@WBSC) September 5, 2017
THUNDER BAY, Ontario, Canada—Putting together its best offensive effort so far in the World Baseball Softball Confederation U18 World Cup, Team USA finished pool play undefeated by taking down Cuba 8-1 on Tuesday night.
Through its first four games, the story for the U.S. was its arms.
In its fifth matchup of the tournament, righthander Cole Wilcox kept that trend going, throwing up to 94 mph with his fastball and finding success with a low-80s slider and 78-81 mph changeup. He was backed by 13 hits from his offense, including four multi-hit efforts from his teammates and more contact than any of the team’s earlier games.
"It was just a matter of time," Team USA manager Andy Stankiewicz said. "The guys have been putting too much pressure on themselves, and they just needed to relax and do what they are capable of doing. We are a really good offensive team.
"Sometimes when you get into a little bit of a funk, guys start stressing out a little bit. It was great to see guys relax and put some good at-bats together. To get all those runs with two outs is huge. The guys are getting excited about putting the ball in play, and put some great swings together."
Wilcox allowed just one unearned run in the second, putting an end to a scoreless-inning streak that had reached 34 innings. The 6-foot-5, 217-pound Georgia native allowed just two hits, walked three and struck out five.
"He did a phenomenal job," Stankiewicz said. "He's just a competitor who attacks the zone, and is a big, strong, young man. He trusts his stuff, especially his fastball, and attacks with it. He works off the fastball and that just makes his off-speed that much better. He just did a great job of attacking the zone and going after hitters today."
The matchup on Tuesday was also the most emotional one Team USA has played so far, flipping the switch from going through the motions in its last couple of games to looking like a squad trying to make its mark and bringing the intensity up a notch before heading into the next round.
"We expected a tough game from the get-go," said Cuban-born Team USA infielder Raynel Delgado. "We knew we were going to have to bring our “A” game today, and we knew they were going to come out and be aggressive. We just had to play our game. Like I said yesterday, I wanted to beat them, and today we did just that."
Added Stankiewicz: "The history of baseball is so strong in Cuba. They have such a great tradition of players and coaches. It's a respectful rivalry on both sides. We take it very seriously and both countries are competitive. It's great for our sport. Anytime you get an opportunity to play Cuba in international play, emotions are going to be a little heightened and we saw a little bit of that from both sides today."
Tuesday's game saw the first appearance of 6-foot-5, 259-pound flamethrower Kumar Rocker, who got in one inning of work. He allowed one hit, walked a batter and struck out two. The Vanderbilt commit was up to 95 mph, with a solid slider at 88.
The victory marked the end of the first round of World Cup play for Team USA's pool, with the Americans advancing to the super round with a 2-0 record, Japan moving on with a 1-1 record, and Cuba carrying an 0-2 record into the next phase.
"Every game we play, we want to win and we've put ourselves in a good spot going into the super round," Stankiewicz said. "We know that we have a lot of work to do, and we'll be facing the best three teams from the other bracket in the super round. They are in the super round for a reason—they are playing well, so we have some work in front of us.
"To finish our side at 5-0 is a great accomplishment and step 2 is the super round. We are looking forward to the challenge."
World Cup Notes
After two rained-out games, Wednesday's off-day will determine the final carryover from the other group, with Korea and Australia's spots secured in the super round, and Canada needing to beat Nicaragua to move on. Canada advances with a win. If it loses, it will be relegated to the consolation round and Taiwan will move on.
"We have to win," said Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada's director of national teams. "As I said to the guys after, I don't want to dampen the celebration or be that guy, but it's all for naught if we're not ready for tomorrow.
"And as last night (against Italy) showed, it doesn't matter who you're playing. It's not always easy. (Italy) had nothing to lose. They're playing with house money, and when you're playing a team that's pretty much got nothing to lose, if you give them a little life, it can be hard. So we've got to get out early, and try to do what we did today."