Juniors Go For Gold In Cuba

ATLANTA--USA Baseball has triumphed--singularly so, among American sports organizations--in its pursuit to keep winning associated with the stars and stripes during an amazing summer.

In August, both the youth and college national teams captured a god medal in their annual international competitions. Then a blue collar bunch of minor leaguers marched to Cuba and left with a third gold medal as well as an invitation to the 2008 Olympics.

All of which makes the upcoming World Junior Championship in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, slightly more significant that it might be most other years.

The junior national team, which features players 18 and under, is the fourth and final of USA Baseball's teams to compete this year, and as the club completed its trials Thursday night, the 18 players who made the final cut turned their focus to their role as the anchor of Team USA's four-tournament gauntlet.

"Bringing home the gold from the youth team and the college team and the pros, it's unbelievable," said infielder Mike Moustakas (Chatworth, Calif., HS), the team's best hitter entering the event. "I just hope we finish the job."

Since 1997, the first year USA Baseball fielded a 16-and-under team that participated in an international event, the organization has never swept all four tournaments in one year. Should the junior team win gold at the World Junior Championship, it would complete the trick.

However, the team doesn't have history on its side. Since winning gold in 1995, the last time the U.S. hosted the 18-and-under event, it's won its annual event only once, in 1999. But its difficulty capturing gold hasn't been due to a lack of talent. The list of prospects who have worn the country's colors at the junior level is long and distinguished. And Jeff Francoeur, Joe Mauer, Scott Kazmir and Delmon Young are just a few of the stars who walked away wearing a medal made of something other than gold.

Talent is once again in abundance among this year's high school class. Choosing the initial 32-man trials roster meant leaving off some very good players, and when coach Jason Hisey (Pima, Ariz., CC) and his staff had a week to trim 32 to 18, the cuts included two lefties with electric stuff in Utah's Tanner Robles and Georgia's Josh Smoker, as well as one of the most powerful amateur hitters in the country in Miami prep catcher Danny Rams.

The team that is headed to Cuba, which includes 17 seniors and one college freshman, is representative of the class' balance and upside.

Righthanders Blake Beavan (Irving, Texas), Matt Harvey (Fitch, Conn.) and Neil Ramirez (Virginia Beach) are expected to start Team USA's first three games, with Beavan slated to start the tournament opener Monday against Taiwan. That leaves five righties--Tim Alderson (Phoenix), Michael Main (Deltona, Fla.) Jarrod Parker (Bluffton, Ind.), Greg Peavey (Vancouver, Wash.) and Kevin Rhoderick (Scottsdale, Ariz.)--all of whom throw 90 mph or harder, available as relievers. Alderson, who has the staff's best command and an extremely deceptive delivery, likely will fill the team's closer role.

With that group of pitchers, Team USA might not need much offense, but Moustakas and his Chatsworth teammate, third baseman Matt Dominguez, are two of the team's major offensive threats.

"We'll be playing in bigger parks than we're accustomed to where the air is heavy and the grass is thick," Hisey said. "We tried to pick the guys who understood that 350-foot flyballs are outs in this tournament. We have lots of versatility, and I think we've got the right group of guys to accomplish our goal."

The junior national team competes in two international events in bi-annual cycles--the COPABE Pan-Am Championship, which serves as a qualifying event for the bi-annual International Baseball Federation World Junior Championship, this year's event. The junior team in 2005, which featured two first-rounders (Clayton Kershaw, Max Sapp), finished second in the Pan Am Championship in Mexico. Cuba beat Team USA 2-1 to claim the gold medal.