LIMA, PERU – For the first time since its debut in 1979, someone other than Canada was going to win the gold medal in men’s softball at the Pan American Games. When Canada failed to qualify for the Pan American Games Lima 2019, it opened the door for a new champion to begin its reign.
Although Team USA couldn’t find a way to get past Argentina, the U.S. men’s squad did continue its impressive feat of medaling in eight of the nine total tournaments. Argentina defeated the U.S. 5-0 behind a two-hit, complete-game shutout from pitcher Huemul Mata.
“It’s bittersweet,” infielder Matt Palazzo said. “We battled out there. These guys left everything on the field. We just came up a little short. But at the end of the day, the silver medal is pretty good, too.”
Palazzo has been playing softball for the national team since 2009. He was with the fourth-place team at the 2015 Pan American Games, the only time the U.S. hasn’t earned silver in this event. Softball was not played in 2007 and 2011.
“It’s been great,” Palazzo said of his experience here. “Lima has done an awesome job. The facilities were fantastic, the crowds were great. The whole thing’s been wonderful. It’s an experience that we’ll never forget.”
Using the page-playoff format – a mix of a single-elimination and double-elimination tournaments – the U.S. found itself playing against Mexico in the bronze medal match. The game’s loser would be awarded bronze, and the winner would advance to square off against No. 1 seed Argentina for gold. When the U.S. earned a 7-4 victory over Mexico behind five home runs, two from second baseman Erick Ochoa, it was time to face the familiar foe once more.
Amidst the chaos of soccer-like chants, spirited airhorns, and buzzing kazoos coming from the boisterous Argentinean crowd, the U.S. tried its best to generate offense against Mata. The hard-throwing right-hander proved to be too much to combat and struck out nine U.S. hitters during the contest.
“He’s one of the top pitchers in the world,” Palazzo said of Mata. “He kept us off balance a lot. He kept us guessing a little bit out there. It was tough. We just couldn’t get that timely hit when we needed it. But we left everything out there, so there were no regrets.”
Argentina posted a team earned run average of 0.65 in its seven victories, with 68 strikeouts in 43 innings.
“They’re deep,” U.S. Coach Gregg Leather said. “They have three more [pitchers] at home, too, that you haven’t even seen that are almost as good.”
Team USA managed a lone hit through the first four innings of play. In the second inning, shortstop Cameron Schiller’s bouncer went over the head of Argentina shortstop Gustavo Godoy and limped into the outfield.
The U.S. firepower had been on display in the bronze medal match against Mexico earlier Thursday morning. In the bottom of the first, designated hitter Jeff Nowaczyk gave the U.S. some early momentum with a two-run home run over the center field wall.
Mexico third baseman Ruben Delgadillo knocked a base hit into center field to bring home centerfielder Julio Rodriguez and tie the score 2-2 in the top of the third inning. The tie was short-lived, though, as Ochoa launched his first solo home run just past the scoreboard in left field.
A pair of home runs in the bottom of the fourth from Jon Lynch and Nick Mullins stretched the U.S lead to 5-2. Ochoa then hit his second home run of the game over the left field wall to extend the lead to 6-2 in the bottom of the fifth.
Mexico’s Jesus Cardona sent a two-run blast over the athletes’ transport bus parked behind the center field wall that cut the lead to 6-4 in the top of the sixth. Duane Weiler replaced veteran pitcher Tony Mancha and ended the threat by striking out first baseman Edgar Lopez. Weiler retired Mexico’s hitters in order in the top of the seventh to clinch the 7-4 victory.
Though their final game against Argentina didn’t play out as hoped, the future looks bright for the U.S. men’s softball team.
“I think [winning the silver] is big,” Palazzo said. “There’s a lot of guys that are pumped now. USA Softball is back on the stand. It’s been a long time. So, there’s a lot of guys that are excited about it, and we’ll see how it goes from here. But there’s only one step up from here.”