Five games. Five wins.
That was the goal for Team USA through the first round of the World Baseball Softball Confederation U18 World Cup in Thunder Bay, Canada. After taking down the Netherlands, Japan, Mexico, South Africa and Cuba--that goal has been met. The Americans have outscored their opponents 34-2 over the course of the first five games, thanks to a deep and talented pitching staff that has combined for an amazing 0.22 ERA (1 ER in 41 IP).
When the final 20-man roster was announced, pitching looked like the strength of the team. After the tuneup games were played in late August, pitching still looked like the strength of the team. Now, five games in, it’s obvious to anyone who watches a few innings or checks in on a box score: pitching is undoubtedly the strength of this team.
“You can't think anything but positive thoughts about what our pitching staff has done,” 18U National Team Director Matt Blood said. “. . . It's basically gone exactly how we thought--maybe even a little better.”
After five games, Blood, USA manager Andy Stankiewicz and pitching coach Ricky Meinhold have been able to avoid overextending individual arms while at the same time, getting each of the 10 primary pitchers at least an inning of work. Those pitchers have combined to strike out 59 batters and walk 17, while holding opposing batters to a .094 average. Perhaps more importantly, no pitcher has been overworked.
Having a well-rested staff throughout the entire tournament can be a real challenge with a 20-man roster, but it’s one that the coaching staff and players have met so far. The U.S. team will have each of its four probable starters (Ethan Hankins, Matthew Liberatore, Landon Marceaux and Kumar Rocker) set to toe the rubber on full rest in the Super Round, which starts Thursday.
“It has gone according to plan,” Blood said. “(Part of that was) the contingency plan we had for the Japan game. We started Marceaux, but we knew we had (Ryan) Weathers in our back pocket in the case that anything happened. Anything meaning injury, or Marceaux struggling or weather. And we got weather.
“So we had Weathers in our back pocket for that game for that particular reason. And he came out and did what he thought we would. And we rolled on to the next day.”
The pitching has been the focus--and rightfully so--up to this point, but the Americans are equally excited about how the offense has begun to take shape--specifically after an 8-1 win over Cuba which showed Team USA hitters making needed adjustments in the box and capitalizing in two-out situations. (All of the eight runs scored came with two outs, in addition to 11 of the team’s 13 hits.)
“We've had some struggles hitting-wise, that's pretty obvious,” said leadoff hitter and center fielder Mike Siani, who’s seemingly had no struggles of his own with a .381/.458/.619 line. “But we've been battling through them. The game (Tuesday) against Cuba was great. We kind of all came together and put the work in. Thirteen hits. A lot of two-out hits, two-out runs--which was awesome.
“I feel like we're really heading in the right direction.”
One of the biggest challenges for the U.S. lineup comes in contrast to general ideas about hitting: the velocity of opposing pitchers hasn’t been fast enough. After going through a trials period where hitters were routinely facing 94-96 mph fastballs from their teammates, the American hitters have stepped into an international field where opponents more regularly throw in the mid-to-upper 80s. Opponents who rely more on offspeed and breaking ball offerings than the U.S. team needs to.
“More breaking balls, (more) offspeed and a lot of lefthanded pitching,” Blood said. “This team is very strong lefthanded hitting wise. The other teams have been trying to throw lefthanders with breaking balls at us. And we struggled a little bit early, but I think we've gotten on a pretty good track now, and the guys are pretty confident hitting against lefties now.”
The numbers back that up, as four of the team’s top five batters (based on batting average) swing from the left side. The lone exception--Raynel Delgado--is a switch-hitter.
Left fielder Alek Thomas leads the team with a .421 average (8-for-19) despite a team-high eight strikeouts; right fielder Jarred Kelenic is fifth in average (.313) but leads the team in slugging (.737) thanks to two home runs and two doubles among his six hits; shortstop Brice Turang has hit .333 (6-for-18) with a pair of triples; and the aforementioned Siani is second on the team in average (.381) and slugging (.619).
“Siani's had a great approach from day one,” Blood said. “He's very competitive in the box. He's not going to give in. He's going to battle. He's shown a nice approach the other way, up the middle, and pull-side when necessary . . .
“He's been a grinder at the top of the order and he's just made it tough on the opponent's pitchers to get him out. He's used his speed and put the ball in play, stolen bases--he's done everything that you would want a leadoff guy to do.”
In addition to leading the batting order, Siani--who is one of four returning members of the 18U team, along with Kelenic, Turang and Triston Casas--has done whatever he can to help lead his team off the field. That includes giving younger players advice, getting the energy up in the dugout or helping re-focus a teammate who’s struggling.
“It's a challenging event,” Siani said. “It's not easy. Both your mindset and ability on the field. So whatever I can do to help out the prepare themselves, I try to do. And the three other guys who were with me last year help me out, too.
“When some guys are struggling, take them aside and tell them, ‘This is your moment. You've just got to take a deep breath and relax. Realize that everybody here is really talented and we're all here for a reason. And you can play. So you just have to take a deep breath and do your thing because everybody here knows you can.'”
Now one of two teams with a 5-0 record heading into Super Round (along with Korea in Group A), everyone watching knows what Team USA is capable of. The pitching has been there from the start, the offense is coming around and the Americans have proven to be a nuisance on the basepaths as well, going 11-for-13 in stolen base attempts.
The U.S. goes into the Super Round with a 2-0 record (teams continue into the Super Round with their records against the two other teams that advance out of their group) and will need to have one of the top two records of the final six teams after play is complete this Saturday, in order to advance to the gold medal game.
For now, though, Team USA is going to take a much-needed Wednesday with no games and relax--in style.
“Jarred Kelenic's dad I think rented a lake house,” Siani said. “So we're going to go over there for the rest of the day. I think we're just chilling out . . . hang out, eat some food, take a step back for a day.”