For the first time since 2008, baseball is back in the Olympic Games. And with its return, Team USA will look to win its first gold medal in the sport since the 2000 Games in Sydney.
The U.S. baseball team qualified for the 2020 Olympics in one of its last opportunities to do so, becoming the fifth team to punch a ticket to Tokyo by winning the Baseball Americas Qualifier in early June.
It was a long time coming for a squad that first attempted to qualify in November 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic postponed their second chance to punch their ticket — and the Games as a whole.
Now that they’ve finally made it to Tokyo, the U.S. will have to beat out Japan, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Korea and Israel in order to reclaim the gold medal. Here’s a look at who the U.S. must watch out for en route to any medal round, as well as the players that could help them to their fourth baseball medal in history.
2020 Olympics Baseball Format
Group Stage: July 28-July 31
Knockout Stage: Aug. 1-Aug. 4
Semifinals: Aug. 4-Aug. 5
Medal Games: Aug. 7
In the first stage, teams will play every team in their group once. Based on those standings, teams will begin play in the double-elimination knockout stage, which will merge the two groups.
The U.S. is in Group B alongside Korea and Israel. Japan, Mexico and the Dominican Republic make up Group A.
Team USA Baseball Schedule
July 30, 6 a.m. ET: USA at Israel
July 31, 6 a.m. ET: Korea at USA
The schedule for the knockout stage will be determined after group play concludes.
Players To Watch
There are no active Major League Baseball players on any Olympic rosters after a decision was made by the league and the MLB Players Union to keep any players on the 40-man roster off of their national teams.
While Duran ended up having a commitment to his major league club, the Red Sox have two representatives in Tokyo — Triston Casas and Jack López.
Casas, the top-ranked prospect in the Red Sox system and the No. 30 overall prospect in MLB’s rankings, hit .271 with 30 RBIs and six home runs through 46 games for Double-A Portland this season. And more recently, the first baseman launched a two-run homer in Team USA’s final exhibition game before Tokyo.
López, who has played in the minors since 2012, has spent most of the 2021 season with Triple-A Worcester, where he is hitting .288 with 22 RBIs and eight doubles. He is joining the contingent as a utility man.
Because of the rule that prohibits active MLB players from joining the roster, the group is mostly minor league players. But there are some former MLB players on the team, too. Among them is 11-year MLB veteran Todd Frazier, who was a two-time All-Star. He signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates for the 2021 season but hit free agency in May.
For Red Sox fans, another name might be familiar — Tyler Austin. The former New York Yankee, who made a name for himself in his 2018 brawl with Joe Kelly, has pitched for Yokohama in Japan for the past two seasons.
A pair of former Red Sox players are headed to Tokyo, but not for Team USA. Former Boston catcher Ryan Lavarnway joins 2018 World Series champion Ian Kinsler on Team Israel.
And there’s a slew of former All-Stars representing the Dominican Republic — Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Bautista and Melky Cabrera — and Masahiro Tanaka is on the roster for Japan.
Team USA Baseball Gold Medal Odds
Japan is the favorite to win the gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, with +160 odds (bet $100 to win $160) via FanDuel.
Team USA is right behind, with +300 odds to take home the title. Korea comes in third at +380.
There aren’t really any surprises in the odds. The most recent World Baseball Softball Confederation rankings have Japan as the team to beat, ranked far-and-away the top team in the world. It’s a striking separation, considering the fourth-ranked team, the U.S., is just 476 points behind second-place Taipei. Korea is ranked third.
It’s hard to look past Japan, which has dominated international baseball recently. And while the U.S. roster won’t include anyone who is actively involved in MLB, the Japanese roster pulled from the top talent in its own uber-competitive professional league — which has long produced some of MLB’s biggest stars.
The host country will be Team USA’s biggest challenge in claiming the gold medal for the first time in 21 years.
Looking for a longshot? Team Israel, which qualified for the tournament on a run-differential tiebreaker, pulls in at +3400.