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U.S. women's baseball team flies under radar, despite international success

U.S. women's baseball team flies under radar, despite international success

Japan not only beat the United States for the last two Women’s Baseball World Cup championships, but
U.S. women's baseball team flies under radar, despite international success
The USA Baseball women's national team gets together prior to playing the Women's Baseball Federation of Japan's Madonna Stars in the opening game of the Cooperstown Women's Baseball Classic at SUNY-Cobleskill Friday.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
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Japan not only beat the United States for the last two Women’s Baseball World Cup championships, but posted shutout victories in each clinching game.

Before their rematch Friday on a field behind SUNY-Cobleskill, in the first of four games as part of the Cooperstown Women’s Baseball Classic, there was no mention of those past meetings by the Team USA cast, or of any sort of revenge, like the national soccer team gained last Sunday with its 5-2 World Cup triumph over Japan.

“It won’t be payback until we play them in another World Cup,” said Ashley Bratcher, USA Baseball’s director of operations for the women’s national team. “Then it will feel like payback.”

Getting that won’t be possible until next year, in South Korea, when Team USA looks to add a third World Cup title to the ones it claimed in 2004 and 2006. Team USA placed third at the event in 2008 and 2010 before its runner-up efforts in 2012 and 2014.

“A lot of what we have accomplished has come outside of the United States,” Team USA manager Jonathan Pollard said. “People may not realize that these girls play at a high level.”

A lot of people don’t know they play at all, female baseball players among them.

“Certainly, the challenge to find players exists, but we have a tremendous network with our alumni, and our staff works tirelesly. I’m blessed to have them in place,” Pollard said. “We’ll turn over every rock. We’ll give everyone a chance.”

Team USA, ranked No. 2 in the world behind Japan, consists of players from eight states, with six of the 18 from California, four from Texas and three from Florida. Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, South Carolina and Washington also have representatives.

“We put a great emphasis on athleticism,” Pollard said. “We need players who can contribute in many ways, fill many roles both offensively and defensively.”

Team USA includes soon-to-be high school seniors Ryleigh Buck, Jade Gortarez and Kelsie Whitmore, and 41-year-old Tamara Holmes, who was barnstorming with the all-female Colorado Silver Bullets pro team before the trio was born. There’s also Malaika Underwood, who excelled as a collegiate volleyball player, as well as Sarah Hudek, the daughter of former major league hurler John Hudek.

“There’s no travel-ball world, no local recreation teams to weed people out. Word of mouth is big,” Bratcher said. “Finding those individuals and making them aware of the opportunity is the toughest part.”

“I found out about it when I was 15 years old. There’s a women’s team?” said Hudek, the reigning USA Baseball Sportswoman of the Year. “It’s definitely been the coolest experience. Last year was my first time in international play, and it was chilling to stand in line with my teammates hearing that anthem.”

Baseball For All, a Massachusetts-based non-profit program that promotes girls baseball (16-and-under), is another feeder to Team USA and the national youth teams.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a Cleveland Indian. I played with nothing to look at. We give them a chance to dream,” said Baseball For All founder Justine Siegal. “Three of our players [Anna Kimbrell, Gortarez, Whitmore] are on the field right now, and I’ve had a dozen girls play on national teams.”

The 18 players who made the Team USA cut back in May were among roughly 150 candidates.

“We had our national open where four teams played, and then we held national team trials,” Bratcher said. “Some younger players from our NTIS [National Team Identification Service] were also selected. Our players come from all over.”

“It’s real cool to hear all of the stories,” Hudek said. “We’ve got that blend, from players with a baseball background to players with a softball background.”

Just out of high school, Hudek, with a fastball clocked in the mid-80s, is in line to pitch for the Bossier Parish Community College (La.) baseball team. Fellow Team USA member Marti Sementelli also hurled at that level, for the Montreat College (N.C.) baseball team, yet was a media and YouTube sensation long before that.

The California native appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel Show when she was 10, and was in a Nike ad with Mia Hamm at age 14 (she said her dream was to pitch for the Red Sox). Four years later, in a 2011 California high school game that made U.S. history, Sementelli and Ghazaleh Sailors became the first females to start against each other. Sementelli went the distance in a 6-1 win.

“Pitching is the hardest position for us to find. A softball player can play center field in baseball,” Bratcher said. “The bulk of the girls who pitch for us pitched in high school.”

Earlier this year, Team USA won the first Pan American Games Women’s Baseball Qualifier in the Dominican Republic with a 5-0 record, including a 3-0 title-game victory over Venezuela, when Gortarez pitched a complete-game, two-hitter.

The next meeting between Team USA and Venezuela on July 20 will be historic, marking the first women’s Pan American Games baseball contest, at President’s Choice Ajax Pan Am Ballpark in Toronto. It will also be the first women’s baseball game contested at a multi-sport, multi-nation event.

“The biggest difference between men and women is you’re not going to see pitchers that overpower you. You have to have great defense,” said Pollard, before adding. “There’s not a lot of long balls. You have to produce runs. It’s very much a chess match. You’ll see a lot of small ball, hit-and-run, squeezes, steals. It’s a National League-style of play.”

Team USA was in an American League park Wednesday, when it was honored by the New York Yankees. Today and Sunday, Team USA and Japan will complete their series of games at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown.

“When we were at Yankee Stadium, one gentleman asked me three times, ‘Is that the women’s softball team?’ ” said Brett Rudy, Cooperstown Women’s Baseball Classic organizer. “I had to tell him no each time.”

“You still hear it, but we’re definitely making progress,” Gortarez said. “When people ask if I play for the national softball team, I say, ‘No, I play baseball.’ ”

Team USA used a seven-run third inning to beat Japan Friday 8-4. Underwood went 3-for-3 with a double, triple and two RBIs. Kimbrell also had two RBIs in the seven-inning game.

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