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U.S. beats Japan in Olympic baseball qualifier, may still need help

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The U.S. handed Japan its first loss in the Premier12 global Olympic baseball qualifier, at the Tokyo Dome no less, but now the Americans must root for the host nation.

The Americans, with a roster mostly of Double-A and Triple-A players, won 4-3 over a Japanese team that includes some of its domestic league’s biggest stars like two-time Central League MVP Yoshihiro Maru and veteran shortstop Hayato Sakamoto.

Outfielder Jo Adell, MLB Pipeline’s top-ranked prospect on the U.S. team, starred by reaching base four times with a home run.

Japan is already qualified for baseball’s Olympic return as the host nation.

The U.S., meanwhile, has a sense of urgency at Premier12, the first of a possible three tournaments in which it could clinch an Olympic spot.

At Premier12, the top-ranked nation from North and South America qualifies for the Olympics. The tournament is at the super-round stage of the final six teams, and two are from the Americas: the U.S. and Mexico.

The top four nations after each has played five games advance to gold- and bronze-medal games.

Mexico already beat the U.S. and ran its super-round record to 3-0 on Tuesday, clinching a spot in the medal round.

The U.S. moved to 1-2 in the super round on Tuesday and must at least get into the same medal-round game as Mexico to keep its hope of finishing as the top team from the Americas.

Japan could help, since it plays Mexico on Wednesday. If Mexico beats Japan, the Mexicans clinch a spot in the gold-medal game, which would put more pressure on the U.S. to win its last two games (vs. Australia on Wednesday and Chinese Taipei on Friday). Even then, South Korea would get into the gold-medal game if it wins out.

If the U.S. is not the top team from the Americas at Premier12, it can still earn an Olympic berth in March. But then it faces trying to come up with a roster at the end of MLB’s spring training rather than during the offseason. MLB teams may be less inclined to release minor leaguers.

“That’ll be a delicate dance,” U.S. general manager Eric Campbell said before Premier12.

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What would a U.S. Olympic baseball roster look like? Qualifying offers clues

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The second iteration of Olympic baseball may see a U.S. team with a similar background to those from the previous era. Especially if the roster for qualifying that begins this weekend is any indication.

Baseball returns to the Games next year for the first time since it was cut from the program after the 2008 Beijing Olympics by a 54-50 IOC members vote. Baseball and softball were both chopped, the first sports axed from the Olympics since polo in 1936.

They both return under a new IOC rule allowing Olympic host cities to apply for sports to be added to their specific edition of the Games. For Tokyo, baseball and softball were logical choices for inclusion.

Baseball is not on the 2024 Paris Olympic program. It hopes to be added for Los Angeles 2028.

At past Games, the U.S. baseball roster did not include active Major League Baseball players. MLB, unlike the NHL (until 2018), did not shut down its season nor make players on 25-man rosters available for Olympic selection.

USA Baseball general manager Eric Campbell said Thursday that a decision on the level of MLB participation, if any, in the Tokyo Games has not been made, or at least communicated to him.

Campbell said that for the 2008 Olympics, players not on 25-man MLB rosters were eligible. That U.S. team, as with past U.S. Olympic rosters, was mostly made up of minor leaguers.

For this month’s Premier12, the first of possibly three chances for the U.S. to qualify for Tokyo over the next six months, USA Baseball sought players who were not only not on 25-man rosters, but also not on expanded 40-man rosters that usually include organizations’ top minor leaguers.

Campbell on Friday confirmed a July Baseball America report that its Premier12 roster selection process began in April with a list of around 150 minor leaguers. MLB teams were contacted about specific players in the summer and had the option to deny player availability.

USA Baseball also looked at Americans in leagues in Mexico, South Korea, Japan and Chinese Taipei. In the end, the 28-man roster for Premier12 includes 26 who played for MLB organizations last season (mostly players of Triple-A caliber), one from Japan’s domestic league and one from Mexico.

For multiple reasons, USA Baseball hopes to qualify for the Olympics at Premier12, a tournament that starts for the U.S. in Mexico and, it hopes, ends in Japan in two weeks as the top team from the Americas. Obviously, qualifying as early as possible is ideal.

But also this: If the U.S. is not the top team from the Americas at Premier12, it can still earn an Olympic berth in March. But then it faces trying to come up with a roster at the end of MLB’s spring training rather than during the offseason. MLB teams may be less inclined to release minor leaguers.

“That’ll be a delicate dance,” Campbell said.

A possible Olympic roster could also include non-draft-eligible NCAA players coming off freshman or sophomore seasons, like Stephen Strasburg at Beijing 2008, Campbell said.

He also did not rule out USA Baseball contacting recently retired MLB players. That conjures Tim Raines, who tried out for the 2000 team at age 40, when he was not on an MLB team. He didn’t make it to Sydney and didn’t retire until 2002.

Of note is pitcher CC Sabathia, who announced before this past season that it would be his last. Sabathia threw in a Team USA warm-up game for the 2000 Sydney Olympics as a Cleveland Indians prospect before being pulled out of Olympic consideration by the club.

Campbell said there had been no contact with Sabathia about Olympic interest before or after he ended his career with a torn rotator cuff, labrum and bicep in his pitching arm last month.

Should the U.S. earn one of the four remaining available Olympic spots, Campbell expects the 24-man roster will have to be submitted at least a month before the July 24 Opening Ceremony.

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Justin Morneau nixes Olympic baseball qualifying return

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Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP with the Minnesota Twins, was taken off Canada’s Olympic baseball qualifying roster before he would have played his first competitive game in more than two years.

Morneau, 38, experienced an unspecified setback in training and was replaced on Canada’s roster for next month’s Premier12. The global tournament marks the first opportunity for many world baseball powers to qualify for the sport’s return to the Olympics.

Morneau never played in the Olympics before baseball was cut from the Games after 2008; active MLB players have never competed in the Games. But he was on Canada’s roster at all four World Baseball Classics from 2006 through 2017.

At November’s Premier12, the top nation from North and South America will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan and Israel are already qualified. Those that do not qualify will get another chance next year.

Morneau could become the second Major League Baseball MVP to play Olympic baseball as a medal sport. The other was Jason Giambi, who made the U.S. team in 1992, the same summer he was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics.

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