Pitching, Defense Lift Team USA Past Nicaragua In Americas Qualifier Opener
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.—Team USA entered the Americas Qualifier this week as the heavy favorite to win the tournament and qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
In its opening matchup against Nicaragua, the U.S. played like it.
Matthew Liberatore allowed one run in five innings, Luke Williams and Jarren Duran each had three hits and the defense made a series of game-changing plays to lead Team USA to a 7-1 over Nicaragua on Monday night.
Team USA jumped out to a 2-0 lead within the first four batters and never trailed, steadily pulling away offensively as its pitching and defense shut down the Nicaraguans.
“There’s a lot of things we can take away from the game that were positives,” Team USA manager Mike Scioscia said. “Pitching well is going to be important if any club wants to do well in this tournament…and that’s something that we did well tonight.”
Team USA limited Nicaragua to five hits and didn’t allow a run after the second inning. Liberatore, the Cardinals top pitching prospect, walked one and struck out four while maneuvering his way through multiple jams. He threw 57 of his 87 pitches for strikes and had his curveball, changeup and slider all working to keep the Nicaraguan hitters guessing and off-balance. He struggled to command his fastball at times and gave up some hard contact against it, but he was able to consistently turn to his secondaries in big spots.
“I thought he was able to mix his pitches well and stay in the zone and just attack hitters all night,” catcher Mark Kolozsvary said. “We were able to control counts and get some early contact and he was just battling up there all night and I thought he did a really, really, good job there.”
Liberatore had lots of help from his defense. In the second inning, first baseman Triston Casas made a heads-up play when a Juan Diego Montes tried to catch the Team USA defense napping and score from second on the back end of an unsuccessful double play. Casas alertly fired a bullet to the plate to catch Montes in a rundown and end the inning.
Steven Leyton led off the third inning with a double off the left-field wall, but center fielder Jarren Duran—who was backing up on the play and was in position to pick up the ball after it got away from left fielder Luke Williams on the carom—executed a perfect relay with shortstop Nick Allen to get Leyton at third base when he tried to turn it into a triple.
And in the fifth, with two on and two out and Liberatore beginning to tire, second baseman Eddy Alvarez made a diving catch on a hard liner up the middle to rob Ismael Munguia of a run-scoring single and end the inning.
“Tonight we played terrific defense at key moments,” Scioscia said. “That changed the momentum of that game.”
With the pitching and defense holding Nicaragua in check, Team USA’s offense steadily pulled away.
After jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first on a sacrifice fly by Todd Frazier and an RBI single by Eric Filia, Kolozsvary led off the third with a home run off the batter’s eye in center field. Filia added another RBI single in the fifth and Team USA broke it open in the top of the ninth. Williams laid down a perfect RBI bunt single and Duran followed with a two-run single to left to finish the scoring.
Williams, a Phillies prospect, finished 3-for-3 with three runs scored and two walks while reaching base five times out of the leadoff spot. Duran, a Red Sox prospect, went 3-for-6 with two RBIs out of the No. 2 spot.
“Those two guys, they were catalysts at the top of the lineup,” Scioscia said. “They can both swing the bats and they both have power and that’s exciting to see, but they also have that on-base component. We did a lot of good things, but those two guys at the top of the order set the table.”
Team USA will face the Dominican Republic on Tuesday in a battle of the top two teams in Pool A. The starting pitchers have yet to be announced.