The pandemic that brought the whole world to a halt delayed the steadfast celebration that many of us may have previously taken for granted. One year later, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are ready to begin and baseball returns to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. Each team will get a preview article where we discuss a bit about baseball in the country, the team’s route to Tokyo, and which players to look for on the Olympic stage. For a refresher on the rules and format of the tournament, please refer back to my preview article, which can be found here.
Baseball Is Back. Can Team USA Compete?
The athletes representing Team USA in the Olympic Games have always been past MLB players and future MLB hopefuls. With the Olympics held during the middle of the MLB season, the league does not allow players on 40-man rosters to participate. Since baseball was upgraded from a demonstration sport to an official medal-worthy one in 1992, the United States took home the Gold Medal just once, in the 2000 Sydney Games. Team USA placed fourth in 1992, third in 1996, won in 2000 and did not qualify in 2004. After the 2008 Beijing Games, where Team USA placed third, baseball was dropped from the competition.
Outside of Olympic Baseball, Team USA competes in the 16-team World Baseball Classic. The United States failed to medal in the first three WBC tournaments (2006, 2009, and 2013) before capturing Gold in 2017. Current MLB stars are allowed to play in the WBC and the tournament is extremely competitive. Japan, which has the top seed heading into the Tokyo Games, won back-to-back WBC titles in 2006 and 2009. The Dominican Republic won in 2013.
Baseball is back on the Olympic stage this year, and The United States will head to Tokyo looking to capture Gold in the nation’s pastime.
Team USA’s Road to Tokyo
The Baseball Americas Olympic Qualifier was held in South Florida just a few months ago by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC). The United States came into the qualifying tournament with the highest world ranking at number two.
The United States hitters didn’t waste any time against 15th-ranked Nicaragua in their opening game. Team USA scored two runs in the top of the first inning and their first two batters — Luke Williams and Jarren Duran — combined for six hits and four runs in the game. Catcher Mark Kolozsvary also hit the team’s first home run of the tournament. Lefthanded pitcher Matthew Liberatore, who started the game, held the Nicaraguan hitters to one run on five hits. Three relief pitchers cleanly wrapped up the remainder of the game without allowing any hits or walks, securing the 7-1 win for Team USA.
In game two, the United States faced the 10th-ranked Dominican Republic. Starting pitcher Joe Ryan held opposing batters — which included former Major Leaguers Emilio Bonifácio, Melky Cabrera, and José Bautista — to three runs while striking out 10. The bullpen had more trouble against the Dominican Republic than they did in the first game, but Team USA’s offense stayed alive. The United States outscored the opposition 8-6 to take their second game of the tournament.
Heading into the super round, the United States steamrolled 13th-ranked Canada and cruised to a 10-1 win. Williams and Duran continued their hot streak at the play and MLB veteran Todd Frazier joined the hit parade with his first home run of the tournament. The pitching staff allowed just one run and struck out 10 Canadian batters to lift Team USA to the Championship Game.
To secure their spot in Tokyo, the United States would have to go through veteran big-leaguer Aníbal Sánchez and 8th-ranked Venezuela. Their offense threatened early, but Liberatore was able to induce a double-play groundball to get out of the bases-loaded jam. Frazier was the offensive hero for Team USA, going 4-for-4 and giving his team an insurance run in the seventh inning with his solo home run. David Robertson came in for the final three outs, recording the save, and punching Team USA’s ticket to Tokyo.
#TeamUSA is Tokyo bound.
Last night, @USABaseball became the 5th nation to qualify for this year’s Olympics.
📹: @USABaseball pic.twitter.com/TomIZLkAXT
— MLB (@MLB) June 6, 2021
Like in previous years, all players on Team USA’s roster are not on their team’s 40-man roster. This year’s players include many familiar names and a few top prospects. When putting together the current roster, USA Baseball’s Executive Director and CEO said, “Our goal was to construct this team around a core of experienced, veteran baseball players with invaluable experience at the highest level and internationally, and we have done just that. We are confident we have pieced together a team of players that will represent the United States proudly on the world stage.”
14 players that helped the United States secure an Olympic berth earlier this year are on the Tokyo 2020 roster, as well as five other USA Baseball national team alumni. The coaching staff, led by former Angels manager Mike Scioscia, holds more than 100 years of coaching experience.
Notable names you may remember: World Series Champions David Robertson (2009 New York Yankees) and Edwin Jackson (2011 St. Louis Cardinals). 2015 Home Run Derby Champion Todd Frazier is also on the team, as well as 11 additional players with MLB service time.
The team headed for Tokyo is also rostering three minor leaguers who are on MLB Pipeline’s Top-100 Prospects list: Triston Casas (30), Simeon Woods-Richardson (68), and Shane Baz (71).
A final note and one of the best stories yet: Team USA infielder Eddy Alvarez is looking to add to his Olympic medal collection. Alvarez was on the 2014 Olympic short track team in the Sochi Winter Games where Team USA won a silver medal. Playing a different sport but representing the same country, Alvarez has his sights set on gold.
Notable Players Missing:
Because MLB is prohibiting players on the 40-man roster from joining their countries in Tokyo, some players who may have played on Team USA are notably absent.
The winning pitcher of the championship game and 2017 WBC Tournament MVP Marcus Stroman is unable to play, as well as tournament standouts Eric Hosmer and Christian Yelich.
Team USA’s one-two punch at the top of their batting order is also not on the roster. Luke Williams is playing with the Phillies and Jarren Duran with the Red Sox.
That’s all for team preview! Olympic Baseball seeding games begin Tuesday, July 27. Pitcher List will continue our coverage all tournament long!
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns)