Aug. 2, 2013
By Austin Miller, OleMissSports.com
OXFORD, Miss. -- Head coach Mike Bianco is back in Oxford, having served as the pitching coach for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, which wrapped up its summer tour on July 23. Team USA finished with a 20-3 record overall, including 7-3 in international play, capped by a historic five-game sweep of Cuba.
"Initially when you do it, you're just excited for the opportunity to represent your country and put USA across your chest, but it's so much more than that," Bianco said of the experience. "It's a great honor.
"On other levels, to coach the best 24 college baseball players in the country and be around a great staff, to sit on a bus or be in a hotel room and talk baseball every day, and exchange ideas, to talk to different pitchers and see what they do, it's just a great experience. I learned so much. I had a terrific time."
Bianco joined Tim Esmay of Arizona State and Ed Servais of Creighton as assistant coaches under head coach Jim Schlossnagle of TCU. Bianco was also reunited with former Rebel Brett Basham, who served as bullpen coach, having most recently served as a graduate assistant at Mississippi College.
And with only two catchers on the roster, Basham's duties often also included bullpen catcher.
"A lot of times he's stuck in the bullpen by himself warming these guys up who throw 95-100 mph," Bianco said of Basham. "So physically you still have to be very talented to be able to do that, and then be a coach, and throw batting practice, and help me with the pitchers.
"I know he's very thankful for the opportunity. But I know as a staff we were thankful that he was there because he did things we physically could not do. I'm proud the other coaches got to see him and get to know him, and see what a great coach he is going to be."
The tour started with games against collegiate summer league teams in North Carolina and Virginia, mostly from the Coastal Plain League, which included games against a pair of current Rebels in junior left-handed pitcher Austin Blunt (Thomasville Hi-Toms) and freshman catcher Holt Perdzock (Wilson Tobs).
Team USA started international play with a five-game series in Japan, in which the Japan national team won the series three games to two.
Then, in between its series against Japan and Cuba, Team USA had the opportunity to practice at Wrigley Field in Chicago, where Bianco and Basham also got to see and catch up with former Rebel right-hander and current St. Louis Cardinal Lance Lynn before his game against the Cubs.
This five-game series against Cuba marked the first time they met on U.S. soil since 1996, with games in Triple-A parks in Des Moines, Iowa; Omaha, Neb; and Durham, N.C., as well as the National Training Complex in Cary, N.C.
Team USA won the first two games in extra innings, clinched the series with a 1-0 win in game three and completed the sweep with wins in games four and five. The series-clincher, the last couple of outs in particular, stood out for Bianco, as he reflected on the experience.
"Another Aha! moment was when we were in Omaha for game three [of the series with Cuba]," Bianco said. "[Arizona State right-handed pitcher] Ryan Burr was on the mound, ready to close it out, and as he was on the mound and got two strikes on the first hitter, you could hear the crowd chanting 'U-S-A.' You're about to win the first three games against the Cuban National Team. We had heard it before, but it was very loud, very vocal.
"When you watch the movie 'Miracle' and different Olympic moments, to hear the fans chanting USA, that gives you chill bumps sitting in the dugout, waiting to close this game out, knowing you're going to beat their professionals."
Looking ahead, Bianco said it's hard to pinpoint one thing he will bring back from the experience, adding that there will be little things they did collectively as Team USA, or things that he heard people do in their own program, both on and off the field.
However, Bianco said, it works both ways, with other programs also taking things from him and the way Ole Miss does things in its program.
"You bring so much back as far as working with players and coaches, but also, you feel good because you realize you are there for a reason, and a lot of the things you are already doing, you are doing it the right way," Bianco said.
Austin Miller is a writer and blogger for OleMissSports.com. He joined the staff in June 2013 after serving as sports editor of the Daily Mississippian. Follow him on Twitter @austinkmiller