When Florida first baseman Tristan Casas is locked in at the plate, it’s often difficult to know where to pitch him. But after five games in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada at the World Baseball Softball Confederation U18 World Cup, Casas didn’t feel locked in.
“I had struggled a little bit,” the Miami commit said via phone Thursday night. “A lot of strikeouts the past couple of games.”
Despite a home run early in the tournament, Casas had managed just a .167/.250/.389 triple slash in the opening round of the World Cup. He had just three hits in 18 at-bats, and had seven strikeouts and just one walk.
The slump didn’t last long.
Casas erupted Thursday night, to the misfortune of Team Canada, leading Team USA to an 8-3 victory over the host nation with a 3-for-4 showing with five RBIs, a run and a walk.
“It was just a matter of time, he is a big boy, and we knew he was going to get it going,” USA Manager Andy Stankiewicz said. “We needed it tonight.”
Casas plated the first run of the night for the Americans in the first inning, hitting a single to shortstop with the bases loaded to give Team USA a 1-0 lead. Two innings later, Casas got excellent extension on a first-pitch, low-and-away fastball from Canadian starter Eric Cerantola, turning the ball around and depositing it over the fence in right-center field to make it 3-1.
“It was out over the plate and it wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but I was still able to put a good swing on it and it was able to ride out of the field,” Casas said. “(Cerantola) made a good pitch and I looked at the replay and was like, 'Wow, that was almost borderline outside corner,' and I kind of pulled it to right-center. Kind of impressed myself on that one.
“In the game I thought it was pretty much right down the middle, but as I looked at the replay it was more like low and away.”
The American Heritage High (Plantation, Fla.) slugger also showed he could handle elevated pitches, blowing the game open in the eighth with a bases-clearing double that hit the bottom of the fence in left-center, giving Team USA an 8-3 lead.
“(Cade Smith) just elevated a two-strike fastball,” Casas said of the double. “I had fouled off a couple tough pitches and I think the pitch before had even been a foul tip off the catcher's mitt and I was able to stay alive for one more pitch--and he elevated that one fastball and I got it out over the outfielders’ heads and cleared the bases.
“Lately my power has been the opposite way. During my batting practices I've been working on letting the ball get deep, slashing line drives through the 5-6 hole. And I really tried to take that approach in the game today and I was able to let balls get deep. And I ended up having a nice night.”
Casas’ night was more than enough to back up a U.S. pitching staff that allowed three earned runs--compared to the one earned run the USA arms allowed in the five prior games--but he also contributed with the glove, making several nice picks at first base, helping his team get out of several key jams as part of a strong defensive effort team-wide.
American shortstop Brice Turang made several impressive off-balance throws throughout the game; catcher Anthony Seigler threw out a runner attempting to steal second base to complete a strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double play in the fifth inning; third baseman Nolan Gorman made a quick, accurate throw to the plate to prevent a run from scoring in the second inning; and Alek Thomas threw out Canadian outfielder Denzel Clarke at the plate to end the second inning.
“As a team we take a lot of pride in our defense and we pitch to our pitchers to throw strikes and let us work because we feel we're really good with the gloves,” Casas said. “And we try to help our pitchers stay efficient and stay confident by just letting them pound the zone and work. It's a really good vibe that we have going on defense right now.”
Stankiewicz agreed with the sentiment, and while Casas’ effort offensively was the most obvious reason for Team USA’s sixth straight win in Thunder Bay, the difference was the defense.
“(The Canadians) are good,” Stankiewicz told USA Baseball. “They are competitive at the plate, they know how to handle the bat, and their young starter did a great job. He had some command issues but once he settled in he did a nice job of mixing his pitches and the guy who came in out of the bullpen did a great job as well.
“They are good up-and-down the lineup. They put the ball in play, they put pressure on you, and make you play defense. The difference tonight was the three double plays we turned. They are tough and a competitive ball club. We had to make plays and fortunately we made the plays we needed to.”
Team USA will have a quick turnaround as it prepares for what is likely its biggest challenge yet of the tournament: a matchup with Korea, the only other team in the tournament yet to lose a game, and the top team from Group A.
That game starts at 9 a.m. ET Friday, with Georgia righthander Ethan Hankins getting the start for Team USA.