Trevor Lane couldn’t have been prouder to represent his country as a member of the USA Baseball roster for the 2021 World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Americas Qualification event for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The same can be said for Kellin Deglan and Robinson Chirinos, members of Team Canada and the Venezuelan national team, respectively.
The trio of RailRiders were among the hopefuls who competed in the Baseball Americas Qualifier, which began on May 31 with eight teams competing against one another in the hopes of earning an Olympic bid. The format of the tournament allowed the team with the best record at the end of the qualifier to earn an automatic berth to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The Americas Qualifier opened with three games of pool play. The top two finishers in each pool advanced to the Super Round, where they played two more games. The second-place and third-place finishers advanced to the Final Qualifier in Mexico, where they had one last chance to qualify for the Olympics.
“I was first contacted after Spring Training ended and we began the Alternate Site,” Lane said. “I was told I was part of the pool of players that could possibly be selected to make the team. I thought that was a really cool opportunity and it motivated me to continue to play hard, stay focused and control what I could control. The RailRiders were in Rochester, N.Y. a week before the Americas Qualifier began when I got the call that I was on the team. It was a quick turnaround, but it was quite the experience.”
The 26-man team from the United States was made up of 14 pitchers and 12 position players currently not on an MLB 40-man roster and featured 12 former national team alumni, 14 players with Major League experience, four World Series champions, four former MLB All-Stars and four MLB Pipeline top-100 prospects in baseball.
“Going into the clubhouse, I knew there was going to be a bunch of guys that I used to watch on TV,” Lane said. “I learned a lot from them on and off the field. It was definitely a privilege to be on that roster and share the experience with some veterans who’ve had such successful careers. I really appreciated playing with all of them. From a position player standpoint, Todd Frazier, Jon Jay and Matt Kemp were leaders in the dugout. Edwin Jackson and David Robertson were our leaders in the bullpen and as a pitching staff. They motivated us, taught us and inspired us. It was definitely special.”
Lane and his U.S. teammates began the Baseball Americas Qualifier with a convincing 7-1 victory over Nicaragua in Port St. Lucie, Fla. The RailRiders southpaw made his first appearance for the stars and stripes in an 8-6 triumph over the Dominican Republic. Lane was credited with the victory after throwing 0.2 IP out of the bullpen.
After its third contest against Puerto Rico was washed out by rain, the United States advanced to the Super Round as the top finisher in Group A. The Red, White and Blue dominated Canada on June 4, 10-1, to open Super Round competition before beating Venezuela on June 5, 4-2. This victory over Venezuela punched their ticket to Tokyo.
“It was pretty cool when we qualified for the Olympics,” Lane said. “Before being selected to the team, I didn’t know what the process was like and especially this year with Covid-19 made things different. It honestly surprised me when I found out the United States hadn’t already qualified for the games. We were pretty confident as a team from the very beginning and we all knew we were going to win it.”
As for Deglan and Team Canada, there was nothing more they could have asked for to open the qualifier. Former big-leaguer Andrew Albers and two relievers combined to no-hit Colombia as Canada opened up its Baseball Americas Olympic Qualifier with a 7-0 victory. Deglan was behind the dish for the entirety of the no-hitter, stealing a couple of extra strikes with framing and doing the pitch-calling for his hurlers.
“It was a great game to be behind the plate, that’s for sure,” Deglan said. “We had Andrew Albers pitching who is in Triple-A with the Minnesota Twins and he pitched seven scoreless. He was just dominating these guys and was hitting the corners. He is fastball dominant, but we used his off-speed the second and third time through the order a little more. He was just in total control.”
While the focus of the game was the commanding start from Albers to set up the no-hitter, the pitcher had high praise for his catcher.
“Deglan did a great job behind the plate,” Albers told Baseball America. “He called a great game and did a really good job framing some tight pitches, so we got some calls that way. I was able to pound the outer half of the zone and miss some contact early, and that really helped open up the lineup a little bit the second time through, and we switched sides of the plate. The fastball command was really good, and we worked off that.”
Team Canada proceeded to defeat Cuba, a country that has long been a powerhouse in baseball. Canada opened the scoring with a three-run first inning and never trailed in the matchup, but a late comeback from Cuba—plating two runs each in the seventh and ninth frames—made things interesting before the Canadian team shut the door and eliminated Cuba.
“It was really cool to beat Cuba,” Deglan said. “It was a night game in St. Lucie and they definitely had a home crowd with the number of Cuban-American fans in the stadium. They were loud and supportive of Cuba, making it a great environment. We scored right away in the first, which took the crowd out of it a bit, but it was amazing.”
The efforts of Team Canada’s run fell just short in a loss to the Dominican Republic later the same week at the Baseball Americas Qualifier. The Canadians dropped three games in the super round, falling to the Dominican Republic, United States and Venezuela, and failed to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“It meant a lot to be on the Canadian roster,” Deglan said. “Anytime you get the opportunity to represent your country you are playing for so much more than yourself and your teammates. Everyone back home is watching closely and we want to do well, to make our countrymen proud. It brings a different type of butterflies pregame.”
Chirinos and the Venezuelan national team opened play and defeated Cuba by a final of 6-5 with Chirinos providing a solo home run. In its second match-up of the tournament, Venezuela had a walk-off 3-2 win over Columbia. Chirinos went 1-for-3 with a single and a walk.
“The atmosphere was really different,” Robinson said. “The first game we played was against Cuba and that stadium was packed. The fans were loud and it was so unbelievable. It brings your focus and concentration to another level. To play against Cuba and beat them the first day, it just set the tone for the rest of the tournament. There are so many people from Cuba in Florida, so that game was especially packed and they were loud the whole game. It was really fun.”
Matching up with Canada in its next game, Venezuela continued to show its offensive and defensive prowess in a 5-0 victory. The team allowed just one hit and worked around four walks to keep the Canadians off the board, while its offense helped Venezuela to a perfect 3-0 record in group play. Chirinos couldn’t have been happier about the team’s success and for the opportunity to play an important role for his country.
“If for some reason I wasn’t in the MLB, I knew I wanted to play for this team,” Chirinos said. “As a baseball player and a guy from Venezuela, you really don’t dream about being in the Olympics. You sign as a professional player and the only goal you have in your mind is to become a big league player. The work you put in everyday, that is the dream you have when you are a little kid. This is the Olympics, we are talking about the best players in the world who have been working their whole lives to get to this point and I am getting this opportunity.”
Things took a turn for the worse for Venezuela as the Super Round began. After being pounded by the Dominican Republic in a 14-4 loss, Venezuela also fell to the United States and lost the opportunity to qualify out of the tournament.
The Venezuelan national team, who finished third place in the Americas Qualifier, had one more chance to qualify for the Olympics by participating in the Final Qualifier in Puebla, Mexico from June 22-26 along with Australia, the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands.
Venezuela, which has never made the Olympics, advanced to the final qualifier game in Puebla after beating the Netherlands 10-0 on Friday in a game that ended two innings early by the mercy rule. Chirinos supplied a three-run home run to the offensive showing. However, the Dominican Republic defeated Venezuela 8-5 in the next contest to earn the sixth and final spot in the baseball tournament at the Tokyo Olympics next month.
“I was not expecting to be on this team, but when we were in Florida I started to dream about making it to Tokyo,” said Chirinos. “It was mind blowing when I realized how big it would be if we made it to the Olympics. We did everything on the field and off the field to have a chance and we did. We had a chance in the last game and we were so close to making it to the Olympics. It is amazing how when you play for your country, how fast the team comes together. You put your pride to the side and give everything you have to your team and country. It was really cool.”
With all rounds of the qualifier concluded, Team USA will move on towards Tokyo. The Olympic baseball tournament will begin on Tuesday, July 27 at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium and Yokohama Baseball Stadium. The U.S. joins the Dominican Republic, Israel, Japan, Korea and Mexico in the six-team field. While the U.S. Olympic baseball roster was announced without Lane making it past the final cut, perhaps most important was the opportunity to represent his country and proudly wear the United States jersey.
“It was definitely a privilege and it was special to represent the United States,” Lane said. “I never thought I’d be here as a kid, so it shows what hard work and dedication can accomplish. It was surreal to play for my country and wear the United States of America jersey. All I wanted to do was make my country proud.”
(Author’s Note: Robinson Chirinos opted out on July 3 and the New York Yankees released him from his Minor League contract.)