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National Pride Drives Team Australia In World Baseball Classic



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Aaron Whitefield (Photo courtesy SMP Images)[/caption] Australia’s biggest tool is the allegiance its players have to the team. As the Aussies head into World Baseball Classic play in Japan, the squad has one of the best rosters it has ever fielded for an international tournament—despite the late decision by righthander Liam Hendriks to opt out—and it’s because of the camaraderie and pride that has been created by the national team program down under. Needing to qualify for this year’s WBC after not winning a game in the last event, several former major leaguers made it their mission to help their country return to the highest international stage a year ago. After starting their own instructional baseball program, Ryan Rowland-Smith and Trent Oeltjen both returned home and strapped it on for the February qualifier. James Beresford, Warwick Saupold and Travis Blackley thrilled fans when they played in the Australian Baseball League last year in order to prepare for the tournament in Sydney. Brad Harman and Luke Hughes
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extended their playing days in the ABL so that they could get to the world tournament. “The one thing that we have is a really good culture,” Team Australia manager Jon Deeble said. “They’re a part of that; they’ve built that culture. It’s not just Ryan Rowland-Smith and Oeltjen, it’s also James Beresford, Brad Harman, Peter Moylan, being a part of our culture. That’s the one thing that we’re really good at, is having a real team, a good team. I know Canada is very good at it also. “It’s probably one of our major strengths is that the Australian guys are a very close group because everyone knows everybody. The USA is spread over a lot of places and 50 states and we’re spread over six. Everybody knows everyone else and we’ve got a really good group of guys who work and play well together. It’s important to have those guys, the experience they bring, and we’re really pleased that we’ve got them on the club.” Familiarity breeds the tight-knit environment that describes the Australian baseball community, and Deeble believes that not only will it help his squad as it matches up against Japan, Cuba and China in this WBC tournament, but also the transition of many of his younger players as it looks to move forward. “This is up there with the best (Australian national) teams,” Deeble said. “There’s a mixture of young kids, and then there’s a mixture of experience. We’re looking to the future, but at the same time we want to win, and this is the best batch of arms we’ve had, that’s for sure. We’ve got a lot of young arms, and we tried to mix and match a little bit, mixing in guys who wouldn’t be intimidated. We wanted to make sure that we had some experienced guys there who would lead the way. “Lachlan Wells had a very good year in the States and he’s got a very, very bright future, so I would say he’s definitely someone to watch. Aaron Whitefield is another one. He’s a really good player and he’s an exciting prospect, so we’re looking forward to both those young kids as well as our older guys, because we’ve got a real mixture and those guys are really important to us . . . it’s a real mixed bag, but we’re pretty excited with the team we have.” Wells is making his senior national team debut in Tokyo, after quickly making an impression on the prospect scene last season, when he posted a 1.77 ERA over 12 starts and 71.1 innings with 16 walks and 63 strikeouts as a 19-year-old at low Class A Cedar Rapids, a Twins affiliate. “I’m just hoping that when I go to the WBC that when I get to pitch, I do the job that’s asked of me and get guys out, and just take it one pitch at a time,” Wells, who just turned 20 last week, said. “I’m also hoping to learn as much as I can off of the big-league guys with a lot of experience. I pretty much want to be a sponge and take it all in. The experience of playing in that type of tournament will help me so much with my confidence, facing some of the best players in the world.” Also a member of the Twins organization, 20-year-old Brisbane native Whitefield hit .298/.370/.366 with a Gulf Coast League-best 31 stolen bases last year before leading the ABL in steals and ranking second in batting. He played with many of his current WBC teammates at the qualifier in Sydney and is looking forward to more of the same camaraderie and guidance that he experienced last year. “This is a huge experience in my career, as I will be on the world stage playing against the best players of the world,” Whitefield said. “It will be a lot different than playing in front of five or 10 people in the Gulf Coast League like I did last year. “I love a huge crowd and I love the pressure, so I can’t wait for it to start. Last year at the qualifier I learned to much from veteran players like Trent (Oeltjen), Luke (Hughes), and a heap more, which I took into my game as I started my first season in the States, and it really helped, so I can’t wait to start our campaign. We will surprise a lot of people and teams this year, and I can’t wait.” Despite having all of the Australian major league talent available outside of Hendriks, Deeble understands that pool play is an uphill battle, and his team will have to be flawless in order to advance to the next round. “Obviously it’s not going to be easy,” Deeble said. “But in saying that, we beat Japan in 2004 to go to the gold-medal game at the Athens Olympics, so we know Japan is going to be tough to beat but we’re not afraid of them and we’ve got a chance at beating them. “The same goes for Cuba. We’ve had a lot of success against Cuba in the past. We have to play our very best to beat both teams, there’s no doubt about that. We’re going to have to be perfect, and we’re not going to underestimate China either. They’ve got a good team with some good Triple-A players.” One advantage the Southern Thunder has over its competition is that the seasons are reversed down under, and while the other squads were training through the winter months, the Aussies were getting into midseason form playing competitive games in the lower-level minor league equivalent that is the ABL. “It’s a massive advantage for us, but we need an advantage,” Deeble said. “We think that that’s imperative, being able to have our league, and being able to have our guys in the best condition we can possibly get them in. We need that. We don’t have a staff like Japan has, and like USA has, but what we have is a really good bunch of guys and a good team that’s ready.”

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