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How USA Baseball Built A World Cup Winner

Team USA defeated Taiwan in the World Cup gold medal game on Sept. 18. Boardroom takes a look at how it came together.

It took a year longer than expected, but USA Baseball left Florida last week with a gold medal at the U-18 World Cup.

The delay, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, meant a roster shakeup due to the originally assembled squad aging out of U-18 eligibility. That gave 20 new high school players, headlined by a host of 2023 MLB Draft prospects, the opportunity to make the squad after a rigorous series of tryouts.

USA Baseball was awarded the World Cup in 2019 and initially assembled a team that included top 2022 MLB Draft selections Jackson Holliday and Druw Jones. Instead, expected 2023 draftees Max Clark, Dylan Cupp, Kevin McGonigle, and Aiden Miller headlined the roster.

If you’re unsure how impressive that is, use the 2017 U-18 team for context. That group included 10 first-round draftees, including Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore, Jarred Kelenic, Triston Casas, and Kumar Rocker.

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Boardroom had an inside look at how the World Cup came together and how the championship-winning squad was assembled, thanks to assists from tournament director Russ Yurk, general manager Ashley Bratcher, and manager Denny Hocking.

“Events like this in other parts of the world, there’s a ministry of sport or something similar that really just underwrites the hosting events like this,” said Yurk, who has been at his current post for six years. “That’s definitely not the case here.”

As tournament director, Yurk handled the undertaking, putting staffers in charge of venues, travel and meals, ceremonies, and media.

The games took place in Sarasota and Bradenton, Spring Training facilities for the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. Overseas, the games became must-see-TV for baseball-loving audiences.

“For most of the kids, it was their first time in the U.S.,” Yurk said of the international players. “We played in probably in some cases the best facility some of these young men have ever played in.”

Building Team USA

For Bratcher, it took a year just to field a 20-man roster and prepare it to excel on the diamond. That started with hiring an on-field staff led by manager Hocking, but also pitching coach Adam Moseley, assistant coach Roberto Vaz, and roving instructor Jack Wilson. But it also included a number of auxiliary staff members like athletic trainers and security.

via USA Baseball

“It’s about bringing in guys with varied backgrounds that bring different things to the table who will all work well together and have the same vision,” Bratcher said. “Then collectively as a group, collaborating on what we want the end game to be and what pieces of the puzzle we need to get there.”

The process began last year when a task force of staff, scouting directors, cross-checkers, and the commissioner’s office identified top high school players going into their junior years. Then, the task force invited 100 of those players to the Prospect Development Pipeline in Cary, North Carolina. After eight days of workouts and games, USA Baseball selected the top 40.

A handful of top sophomores, who went to the Minnesota Twins’ facility in Fort Myers for a five-day workout, joined them. From there, Bratcher, Hocking, and Co. picked the group of 20 that eventually defeated Taiwan for the gold medal. That team had to have the right mix of position players, pitching specialists, and two-way players to survive the tournament. That meant combining righties, lefties, speed, and power to take home the title.

After workouts and exhibition games against Australia, Canada, and Taiwan, Team USA won all five pool play games before going 2-1 in the Super Round, with the lone loss coming to Taiwan. The U.S. got its revenge in the finals, led by a three-run homer and scoreless final inning from 6’7 righty Bryce Eldridge.

“You’re looking at talent but also at the right individual,” Hocking said. “All of these kids hit in the top part of their order. And all these kids are the first guy, when they play a game, to get the baseball. It was finding the unselfish kid, the kid that’s willing to take a ball bucket from the hotel and put it on the bus and take it from the bus to the field. Those are guys that we’re trying to find. These kids all earned the right through their work, their belief, and their trust to wear the uniform.”

For some players in the tournament, it was the pinnacle of their athletic careers. For Yurk, he hoped that whether it was the facilities, games, meals, or hospitality, that the World Cup was something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.

“When they think about USA baseball in the future,” Yurk said, “it’s not just the great squads we put on the field, but that they hosted one heck of a tournament.”

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