Team USA visits Japan

35-game winning streak on the line

Staff writerJuly 10, 2009 

The U.S national baseball team enjoyed its home cooking in Cary, Durham and Kannapolis, bashing the Canadian and Guatemalan national teams by an average of almost 12 runs in an undefeated stretch of nine games this summer.

The collegiate national team will the find the opposition a lot tougher this weekend in Japan, where Team USA will attempt to reverse 36 years of Japanese dominance. The U.S collegiate team has never beaten the Japanese collegiate team on its native soil; because of that futile record, Team USA could enter the five-game series as underdogs to the most disciplined team in the world despite the Americans' 35-game winning streak in international play, U.S. team manager Rick Jones said.

The series begins Saturday in Matsuyama, Japan, at 11 p.m. EDT.

Jones was an assistant coach on the 1990 team that won a bronze medal in the World Championships. That team beat global baseball power Cuba in best-of-three series, but when it went on to play Japan, the USA managed to win just one out of five games.

"They're going to do very little to beat themselves," Jones said. "You're going to have to be very economical with your pitch counts, and you have to cash in on your run opportunities. In their ballparks, it gets amplified even more."

Jones said the primary reason for Japan's toughness is its ability to play its own game and not adjust to the opponent.

He said because Japan attempts to play the same style every day, it has a consistent level of excellence regardless of the opponent.

Japan relies heavily on "small ball," preferring to use its speed and patience at the plate to punish opponents whenever they make mistakes.

It's a lesson that the Jones and the rest of Team USA have attempted to implement.

"You play the style you're accustomed to -- we tried to do that in the selection process with this in mind," Jones said. "You try to prepare by knowing your opponents and negating their strengths and do as good a job as possible as accentuating yours."

Before it even steps foot on the baseball diamond, though, the U.S. will have to ward off jet lag and fatigue from the 18-hour flight.

The team flew out Wednesday and was scheduled to rest Thursday before playing an exhibition game against a Japanese college team today. The quick turnaround could impact its pitching rotation.

"From a pitcher's perspective, that's pretty tough to lose an entire day and have to throw seven solid innings," pitcher Cody Wheeler said.

But that's just what the U.S. team is going to need to keep a double-digit win streak alive, not to mention to end decades of futility against arguably its toughest opponent yet.

"Sometimes you'll find an opponent that fuels [your] fire," Wheeler said. "Japan fuels their own fire."

sallan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4558

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