|Team USA, baseball, Fourth of July - and the next 'Dice-K?'|
|Written by Admin|
|Tuesday, 03 July 2007 12:32|
Here's the modern-day twist: The pitcher facing the U.S. team is the latest Japanese sensation with an eye on the major leagues.
Teenage phenom Yuki Saito presents an intriguing challenge for the college freshmen and sophomores on the U.S. national team.
The Americans begin their annual series with Japan on Wednesday in nearby Durham hoping to prepare for the upcoming Pan American Games and prove themselves as international contenders.
``We have `USA' across our chests, and everybody in baseball in the different countries wants to beat us because people think we're the strongest in the world, we invented the game, and basically, people are out to beat us,'' Team USA coach Mike Weathers of Long Beach State said.
``We've always had that on our back, and that's the challenge every day we go out there - we're the United States of America. That's something we've got to deal with.''
They'll also have to deal with Saito and the attention brought by the Japanese star nicknamed ``the Handkerchief Prince'' because of the small towel he uses to wipe sweat from his brow.
About 80 photographers and reporters chronicled Saito's every move during practice Tuesday at the Americans' new training center in Cary. Some labeled him ``the next Dice-K'' and suggested he could follow countrymen Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka to the majors.
``Matsuzaka is `The Monster,''' Japan coach Masao Kawarai said through an interpreter. ``Saito is just a freshman in college.''
Saito was 4-0 with a 1.65 ERA at Waseda University, and led his team to Japan's national championship while becoming the first freshman MVP in tournament history. He has a fastball is in the low 90s and a slider that baffled hitters in his home country.
``Compared to Japanese hitters, the U.S. hitters are way bigger, more powerful,'' Kawari said through an interpreter. ``They can put it out of the ballpark. So what we told him (was), `Don't be afraid. Go with your best pitch. And if they hit, they hit. But don't be afraid. Go challenge them.'''
While the Japanese players are wary of the U.S. team's power, the Americans - many of whom are used to the slugfests found in the Southeastern Conference and Big 12 - are adjusting to the lower-scoring, small-ball of the international game.
``Their style of play is very different, and you kind of have to adapt to it each game,'' said infielder Pedro Alvarez of Vanderbilt. ``Their pitching is very different from our pitching. ... They're very fundamental. You have a (SEC) team like South Carolina who led the country in home runs - these teams don't have the power we have (but) I've never seen teams execute like these guys do.''
The five-game series with Japan - a series the U.S. has never lost on American soil - is its final tune-up for the Pan American Games in Rio de Janiero.
The U.S. hasn't won the gold medal since 1967, with Cuba winning nine straight golds since, including the Cubans' 3-2 victory over the Americans and Jared Weaver in the 2003 championship game.
``They will be our main, main obstacle,'' Weathers said.
The Americans are out to prove themselves on an international stage, after the Olympic team organized by USA Baseball failed to qualify for the 2004 games in Athens and the sport was voted out of the 2012 games in London. Four of the collegiate players returned from last year's U.S. team that won the gold medal at the FISU World Championships in Havana, Cuba.
Now Weathers wants to feel what Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda did when he coached the Americans to Olympic gold at the 2000 games and later called that the highlight of his career.
``I think Tommy's correct. To win that gold medal when everybody's after you is a tremendous accomplishment,'' Weathers said.