2015 Pan American Games Halfway Finished

All that really concerns us in the 2015 Pan American Games at Toronto is baseball and basketball. But there are numerous other athletic events, such as triathlon as well as four disciplines of cycling. (TO2015)

All that really concerns us in the 2015 Pan American Games at Toronto is baseball and basketball. But there are numerous other athletic events, such as triathlon as well as four disciplines of cycling. (TO2015)

The 2015 Pan American Games are currently being held in Toronto, allowing literally thousands of highly skilled athletes from more than forty National Olympic Committees to match brains and brawn in approximately three dozen sports. They’ve been underway for about a week now, and there’s about a week left to go. Of the many sports included in the 2015 Pan American Games, there are two that fall under the sports we generally cover: baseball and basketball. Each of these sports is offered for both women and men.

We’d like to cover both of these sports, separating the news for each by gender. Not all of these sports are underway quite yet, but the 2015 Pan American Games will be over by Saturday. That said, this seems like the best possible time to recap what’s happened and preview the remaining week.

Women’s Baseball

Sarah Hudek is the first female pitcher in history to compete in the Pan Am Games. We expect to see a lot more of her in future sports news. (JPTV/YouTube)

Sarah Hudek is the first female pitcher in history to compete in the Pan Am Games. We expect to see a lot more of her in future sports news. (JPTV/YouTube)

It hasn’t been too long since we covered Melissa Mayeux and the possibility of a woman joining the MLB. In doing so, we pointed out that she was not exactly the first woman ever to excel at baseball. While a strange set of gender roles has often determined baseball to be a men’s sport while confining women to softball. The 2015 Pan American Games, however, have taken one very large step toward redefining baseball as a sport that can be played by either of the sexes.

That is because this week marked the beginning of the first appearance of women’s baseball at a major multi-sport event. Sarah Hudek of the American team therefore became the first female pitcher in history to participate in such an event, when she opened Monday’s game against the team from Venezuela. The rules were more or less the same as in men’s baseball, although there were seven innings instead of nine. At the end of the seventh inning, the United States team celebrated a 10-6 victory over Venezuela.

Sarah Hudek is not the only notable team on the United States team for the 2015 Pan American Games women’s baseball tournament. For instance, two of her teammates are San Diego residents Nicole Rivera and Malaika Underwood. Rivera is an experienced softball player, and has played on a national squad that in many ways mimics the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the mid-twentieth century. Underwood has boasted skills since the days of playing Little League in the 1990s, and made it her mission to be accepted onto her high school baseball team despite her gender.

Unlike Melissa Mayeux, Malaika Underwood has no intention of trying to make the MLB. In fact, to her knowledge, nobody on her team is aiming for that particular achievement. In her words: “Really, we just want to play at the highest level for women. We’re not looking to play with guys, but those are the opportunities at the moment. We’re just looking for equal treatment and inclusion in events like this.” In other words, it isn’t about getting on TV (in fact, the debut women’s baseball game at the 2015 Pan American Games was untelevised). It’s simply about the opportunity to play the sport they love at a major event. They don’t care if they don’t get to play alongside men, as long as they can at least play in the same stadium.

It might be a good thing that the women on the US team are satisfied with their inclusion in the 2015 Pan American Games, since there’s not telling if they’ll ever go any farther. To clarify, there are some who believe that women’s baseball (as well as men’s softball) will never become a part of the Olympics. American outfielder Tamara Holmes refers to the 2015 Pan American Games as “clearly the biggest event that women’s baseball has ever had.” Whether or not that statement will ever apply to the Olympics remains to be seen, although we probably won’t get our answer for several more years.

Men’s Baseball

Team Canada took home the men’s baseball win of the 2015 Pan American Games. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star)

Team Canada took home the men’s baseball win of the 2015 Pan American Games. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star)

Before getting into the outcome of the men’s baseball competition at the 2015 Pan American Games (which just ended this past Sunday), it should be mentioned that men’s baseball, like women’s baseball, was not included in the most recent Olympics. However, unlike women’s baseball, men’s baseball is likely to make its way back to the Olympics within the relatively near future. It is estimated that men’s baseball might be reincorporated into the Olympics as soon as the 2020 Tokyo Games, having been absent from the Olympics since they were held in Beijing in 2008.

The US team made it to Sunday’s final game, having beaten Cuba 6-5 despite a shaky start by pitcher Aaron Blair. Although they were trailing by four points after six innings, they rallied in the seventh inning and were able to pick up four more runs. By the end of the game, the United States was back on top. This put them up against the Canadian team, who had beaten Puerto Rico in their stretch of the semifinals.

The final men’s baseball game of the 2015 Pan American Games saw such an even match-up between the United States and Canada that they ultimately went into extra innings. This introduced spectators to one of the more interesting rules of the Pan American Games. When a Pan Am game goes into extra innings, the batting team can put runners on the first and second bases at the beginning of their half-inning. The United States made use of this, putting up two runners and then using a sacrifice bunt to advance them right off the bat. Former Toronto Blue Jays draft pick Tyler Pastornicky drove it home for two runs. At that point, the United States had a 6-4 lead. It certainly looked as if they might be able to take home the gold.

However, the bottom of the 10th inning did not play out as smoothly as the American team might’ve hoped. One very rough play, beginning with a wild throw to first by American relief pitcher David Huff and ending with another wild throw to third, allowed the Canadian team to score two runs and take a 7-6 lead. Given the US team’s close win against Cuba, their loss to Canada due to a single poorly executed play was especially upsetting. Striking out would have been one thing. Losing due to two wild throws in a row was simply embarrassing.

Note that the international rules for extra innings had very little to do with the loss by the United States. If anything, they were able to use that rule to make it much more difficult for Canada to catch up with them. And while there are some people who absolutely hate the international rules due to the option to load up the first and second bases with runners, it never hurts to watch a beloved sport in a new way. And taking home the silver? It’s not the worst thing in the world.

Women’s Basketball

Kia Nurse was undoubtedly the star of Team Canada in their final against Team USA. (John Woike/Hartford Courant)

Kia Nurse was undoubtedly the star of Team Canada in their final against Team USA. (John Woike/Hartford Courant)

As with men’s baseball, the women’s basketball leg of the 2015 Pan American Games wrapped up this week with the United States facing off against Canada for the gold after beating Cuba to make the finals. Team USA dropped behind five points early in their game against Cuba, and was fourteen points behind at the second half. Nonetheless, they managed to gain the advantage they needed before Linnae Harper clinched the win. It was her free throws that led the United States to take a 65-64 lead over Cuba and advance to the finals.

Canada’s bid in the semifinals pitted them against Brazil. Unlike Cuba and the United States, however, Brazil did not give Canada much of a run for their money. They won 91-63, putting them up against the United States. Neither Canada nor the US team had been defeated once on their run to the finals in the 2015 Pan American Games. For Canada, who had never won a gold medal in Pan Am women’s basketball, making it to the finals was a shot at making history. And while the women on the US team had something over them in size, they had a lot of motivation to win.

Their motivation paid off, with Canada beating the United States 81-73 and taking home the gold. And by the end of the game, there was one name on everybody’s lips: Kia Nurse. She made 33 of those 81 points, which is a personal best for her. Former teammate Breanna Stewart and head coach Lisa Thomaidis were both quoted as calling Nurse’s performance “unbelievable.” Thomaidis continued: “To be 19 and have that performance? C’mon. It’s just astounding. It’s unimaginable, really amazing composure from quite a player.” According to Stewart, Nurse had basically carried the team on her back.

Nurse’s scoring alone was incredible, but she also managed to return to the court after a head-to-head collision that left Team USA’s Moriah Jefferson on the bench. They were both diving for a loose ball, when their skulls met and they were both knocked out of the game. Not only was Nurse able to return a while later, but she was able to score the most points out of any single player in the game despite having her performance disrupted. This is made even more impressive by the fact that she is the youngest player on Team Canada.

While the United States was not able to take home a win, it wasn’t for a lack of talent on their roster. Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson both made decent performances both during the final and in the games leading up to it. Even reserve guard Kelsey Plum, who recently underwent knee surgery, contributed to much of Team USA’s undefeated run to the finals in the 2015 Pan American Games. Unfortunately, their efforts simply were not enough to hold back Nurse’s stellar performance. It was a loss, but at least it was a respectable one. Sometimes, that’s all you can hope for.

Men’s Basketball

Damien Wilkins will hopefully provide Team USA with the veteran leadership they need to make the finals in the 2015 Pan American Games. (Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports)

Damien Wilkins will hopefully provide Team USA with the veteran leadership they need to make the finals in the 2015 Pan American Games. (Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports)

One of the last major events this week will be the men’s basketball final on Saturday. Much like the women of Team Canada, the Canadian men’s basketball team has never won a gold medal in the Pan Am Games before. Will the 2015 Pan American Games allow them to make history in the same fashion as their female compatriots? If so, then Canada will indisputably be the most successful team in the sports of baseball and basketball at the Pan Am Games this year. And they’ve certainly got the talent to make it possible.

One of the most notable names on Canada’s roster for the 2015 Pan American Games is Aaron Doornekamp. He is 29, and is one of the older members of the team. Not only that, but he has played for Canada in the Pan Am Games six times since 2007. He’s not only an experienced player, but he has experience with this specific event. That will give him an edge that will help to make up for the fact that big names such as Andrew Wiggins and Tristan Thompson are surprisingly not on the team. Doornekamp will be joined by Anthony Bennett, who should help to solidify the team’s edge.

As for Team USA, who will be going head-to-head with Team Venezuela to kick things off, a win in the finals of the 2015 Pan American Games would make their first Pan Am win since 1983. To put things in perspective, that was a team that included Michael Jordan. This year, the most prominent names on the roster are Damien Wilkins and Ryan Hollins. They’re two of the more experienced players on the team, and possibly two of the more experienced players in the competition at large. Their Tuesday, July 21 game can be watched online at 9PM Eastern, so we’ll soon have an idea as to whether or not Wilkins and Hollins will be able to lead a winning team.

According to guard Ron Baker, it won’t be easy for Team USA to walk away with a win this year. He is quoted as saying: “There is a sense of urgency. There’s been a reason why the US hasn’t won it. It’s because the [opponents] that go down there are very, very skilled and very good. It’s going to take a lot of effort. It’s going to take a lot of energy to put a good run on this tournament.”

It is worth saying that the 2015 Pan American Games are leading to something much greater. In late August and early September, the teams partaking in the Pan Am basketball tournament will be entering the qualifier for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Of course, many of these teams might have slightly different rosters at that time. Nonetheless, Team Canada sees the Pan Am Games as an opportunity to warm up for the qualifier. This would be a wise mentality for Team USA to adopt. Whether they win or lose the 2015 Pan American Games, even if they don’t make it to the finals, we’ll be interested to see what Team USA has to offer us in the future.