Tokyo-Bound: Team USA Beats Venezuela To Win Qualifier And Clinch Olympics Berth
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.—For more than 18 months, USA Baseball waited for this moment.
Team USA failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in its first try back in November 2019. The coronavirus pandemic delayed its second chance to qualify by more than a year, allowing the anxiety to build and the fear of not qualifying to sit and stew longer than anyone desired.
The long-awaited second chance finally came with the Americas Qualifier this week. USA Baseball put together a roster of major league veterans and top prospects to represent the nation and ensure it would not suffer the ignominy of missing yet another chance to qualify for the Summer Games. The team would play five games, understanding that if all went well, a moment would come where Team USA had to deliver against a talented opponent equally motivated to get to the Olympics itself.
When the moment finally arrived Saturday night, Team USA was ready.
Todd Frazier went 4-for-4 with a home run and two RBIs, Eric Filia hit the go-ahead, two-run homer and Team USA clinched a spot in the Summer Olympics with a 4-2 victory over Venezuela in the final game of the Americas Qualifier. Team USA is going to the Olympics for the first time since 2008, the last time baseball was a part of the Summer Games.
“You got to dig deep down inside and understand just playing for your country is the coolest thing in the world,” Frazier said. “We came together as a group right from day one. We know who we had. We had a great bunch of young guys. We have a good amount of older guys including myself. We understood that there was gonna be battles along the way … but it's just amazing. It's hard to put into words, because it means a lot to me.”
Team USA finished the qualifier undefeated and outscored its opponents 29-10 over four games, in addition to leading 6-1 in a game that was stopped in the fourth inning due to inclement weather.
Team USA trailed for only two innings the entire tournament. It beat Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Canada and Venezuela, in addition to leading Puerto Rico in the suspended game.
Now, it will join Japan, South Korea, Mexico and Israel in the Summer Olympics.
“From a manager's perspective, the only thing I can equate (this qualifier) to is you're playing five elimination games in the playoffs or pennant race,” Team USA manager Mike Scioscia said. “You can't stub your toe at all, and fortunately we didn't.”
It was a sweet redemption for the national team after it failed in its first chance to qualify at the WBSC Premier12 tournament in November 2019. That roster of mostly prospects struggled throughout the event and lost to Mexico in the bronze-medal game, blowing a ninth-inning lead when it was three outs away from victory and a spot in the Tokyo Games.
USA Baseball came back determined to field a more experienced roster for its second opportunity and found a host of unsigned veterans willing to play for their country.
Frazier was foremost among them. After the Pirates designated him for assignment on May 10, he reported two days later to Team USA’s minicamp at the Mets spring training complex to train with the national team. He made the roster and served as Team USA’s starting third baseman and No. 3 hitter in the lineup throughout the qualifier.
“Everything worked out perfect, honestly,” Frazier said. “Was I upset? Sure. I mean, you want to play Major League Baseball as long as you can. But you move on. I had a plan B. And it was the best Plan B I could ever have in my life.”
Frazier performed well in the opening round but largely took a back seat to a host of talented prospects who led Team USA to its early victories, namely left fielder Luke Williams (Phillies), first baseman Triston Casas (Red Sox), center fielder Jarren Duran (Red Sox), catcher Mark Kolozsvary (Reds) and shortstop Nick Allen (Athletics).
But with Team USA needing one final victory to secure its place in the Olympics, Frazier took over.
The 35-year-old veteran started with a single in the first inning and, in a telling sign of how aggressive he planned to be, surprised everyone by stealing second base. It caught Venezuela so off-guard that second baseman Yonny Hernandez failed to cover the bag.
“I was timing (the pitcher) up over there a little bit, trying to get something going,” Frazier said. “I can still play the game and it's surprising to many people, but I know I can still play this game and play it to the best of my ability. I wanted to show everybody today too, especially myself, I wasn't letting this go by without a W.”
Venezuela starter Anibal Sanchez kept Team USA off the board for three innings and the Venezuelans jumped out to a 1-0 lead when Hernan Perez hit a leadoff home run in the third.
Frazier helped ensure the lead didn’t last long. He led off the fourth with a sinking liner that dropped just in front of center fielder Ramon Flores, and Filia followed with a towering drive to right field that landed just over the fence to put USA ahead, 2-1.
Frazier took it upon himself from there. He added to Team USA’s lead with a two-out, run-scoring double down the left-field line in the fifth inning to make it 3-1. After Venezuela crawled back to cut the deficit to 3-2, he delivered his biggest hit of the game.
Team USA's Path To Gold: Explaining The Olympics Baseball Bracket
Team USA still has a path to a gold medal even after its loss to Japan. Here is what it needs to do to get to the gold-medal game.
With two outs in the seventh, Frazier got a 3-1 fastball from Venezuela reliever Erick Leal and launched it off the façade of The Jim Beam Bourbon Bar on the elevated concourse beyond the left-field fence for a home run. The long blast made it 4-2 and gave Team USA a critical insurance run.
As Frazier rounded the bases and the crowd of thousands serenaded him with chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A”, he raised his left arm up to instruct them to raise the volume even more, and finished the celebration with an emphatic slash across his chest.
“This is one of the top moments of my baseball career, playing for your country,” Frazier said. “I mean … it was unbelievable. Packed house screaming ‘USA’ and I had one of my better games I've had in a long time. I just kept telling myself I'm not letting this slip away.”
Two more of Team USA’s veterans finished it out from there. Edwin Jackson pitched a scoreless eighth to keep the lead intact and David Robertson closed it out in the ninth for the save.
Robertson struck out the first two batters before walking Luis Castro to bring the tying run to the plate. After a battle with pinch-hitter Alexander Palma, Robertson induced a ground ball to Frazier at third base, who threw across the diamond for the final out and sent Team USA streaming out of the dugout in celebration.
“These whole couple of weeks have been so intense,” Scioscia said. “You're really playing five elimination games and our guys rose to the occasion and played great.”
The Dominican Republic and Venezuela, who finished in second and third place in the qualifier, respectively, will have one more chance to qualify for the Olympics. They will participate in the Final Qualifier in Puebla, Mexico from June 22-26 along with Australia and the Netherlands. The winner of that qualifier will earn the sixth and final spot in the Tokyo Olympics.
If Team USA had lost, it would have been at the mercy of a complicated series of tiebreakers to determine whether it would go to Tokyo or have to go to Mexico and try to qualify one more time.
Instead, it took control of its own destiny, and won the game it had to win.
“We were just determined to win, no matter what the underlying factors were,” Frazier said. “If we had to play on a Little League or a high school field, we would have done it. And I know other country would have done the same. You just see the prize. Every team and every player wanted to win so bad.
“It felt like a major league game in the playoffs. It was just that fierce and that much fun.”