After a collection of intersquad and exhibition games, USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team began its official games against international competition Tuesday night at L.P. Frans Stadium with the start of the 8th Annual USA vs. Cuba International Friendship Series.
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The Team USA squad put together a solid effort in the series opener and defeated the Cuban National Team 5-1 in front of 1,816. The five-game series against the Cubans continues Wednesday night at BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte before finishing up the week with games at Durham and Cary.
The contest was a contrast of experience between the two teams. The Cuban roster had players ranging in age from 18 to 36 with a wealth of experience together. For Team USA, the 26-man squad, consisting of 23 college sophomores, began play for the first time last Thursday. Team USA head coach Dan McDonnell – who is the head coach at the University of Louisville – said the intersquad games built cohesion and community on the team.
“These guys are from different conferences and different parts of the country, even some rival schools,” McDonnell said. “But, you put USA across your chest, it’s not just about throwing the baseball and hitting the baseball. There’s other factors that come into play.”
Team USA never trailed and scored the first two runs in the second against 32-year-old Lazaro Blanco. Tanner Allen singled and one out later, his Mississippi State teammate Colton Cowser reached on a walk. A wild pitch advanced the runners before Heston Kjerstad of Arkansas dropped a soft liner into shallow center to score both.
The Americans outhit Cuba 6-5, but they worked six walks in the game to keep the pressure on Blanco and two other relievers. McDonnell said the team’s two-strike approach was a key factor in the total offensive success.
“Great hitters,” McDonnell said of his lineup. “They don’t just hack and swing. I thought Kjerstad had the at-bat of the night. He’s a big, strong kid that likes to see the ball go over the fence. Our coaches have challenged them about their two-strike approach and shoring up. He did a great job.”
Allen had a hand with adding a third run in the third when he singled in Austin Martin of Vanderbilt, who walked to open the inning.
Back for his second summer with Team USA, starter Max Meyer from the University of Minnesota kept the Cubans off balance with an effective fastball-slider combination. The rising junior allowed two hits and struck out four over four innings.
“There’s something special about the guy that throws the first inning of the first game of the series,” McDonnell said of Meyer. “He did exactly what we needed.”
Team Cuba scored its only run in the fifth against Chris McMahon of Miami. With one out, Frederich Cepeda walked and moved around to third on Yoelkis Guibert’s double. Cepeda scored when Yuniesky Larduet was able to keep a soft roller fair up the third base line.
Team USA bounced back for its final two runs in the seventh when Martin and Luke Waddell (Georgia Tech) came up with back-to-back RBI singles.
McMahon finished out the final five innings and allowed just one hit after Larduet’s single in the fifth.
After the series with Cuba, Team USA will travel to Taiwan for a series against Chinese Taipei, July 9-12. Team USA will then go to Japan for five games against the Japan Collegiate All-Stars, July 16-21.