DURHAM — Durham Bulls pitcher Joe Ryan picked up a new nickname from teammate Brent Honeywell Jr.: Captain America.
That’s because Ryan, who is 3-3 with a 4.11 ERA in his first year with the Bulls, is headed to Tokyo as a member of Team USA.
Baseball makes a one-time return to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. Players selected to the team can’t be on a major leauge team’s 40‑man roster, meaning the team will be a collection of up-and-coming prospects, like Ryan and Bulls teammate Shane Baz, and veterans who couldn’t catch on with a big-league team this year.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” Ryan said. “Once in a lifetime.”
Ryan has already left the Bulls once this season for his country, going to Florida to help Team USA go 4-0 in the Olympic qualifiers last month. Ryan started a game against the Dominican Republic and struck out 10 in 4⅔ innings.
“It was definitely different to leave the team midway through the season and go with a bunch of guys you’ve never met before, practice one day and start playing games,” he said.
Representing his country was a new experience for Ryan.
“It’s baseball,” he said. “I knew it was a big deal, obviously, looking down at my (Team USA) jersey. I just had to clear my mind, control what I can control and execute the next pitch.”
Baz also has some experience representing his country. He went to Mexico with Team USA’s under-18 team in 2016, along with current Olympic teammates Nick Allen and Triston Casas.
“I’ve had the chance to throw in the minor league playoffs,” Baz said. “I’ve pitched for Team USA. It’s kind of like why you play the game — for the moments. Going into a big pressure spot just makes you better. It helps you dig down and find something you didn’t know you had.”
Being named to the Olympic team capped a big week for Baz. He was called up to Durham last month and is 1-0 with a 1.42 ERA in four starts for the Bulls. Shortly after arriving, he was chosen for the MLB Futures Game which will kick off All-Star weekend.
“I’m thankful, grateful,” he said. “It’s been kind of a crazy few weeks. (Making the Olympic team) is up there. Hitting Triple-A a few weeks ago was awesome. The Futures Game is big-time too. It’s been a pretty good month. I’m just trying to stay on an even keel, go play baseball, that kind of thing, but this week’s been pretty solid.”
The Olympic experience won’t be quite the same as in previous years. COVID restrictions will be in place in Tokyo, limiting what the athletes can do outside of their events.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to do anything, from what I’ve heard,” Ryan said. “It’s going to be living quarters to the field and back. Anything other than that is going to be new to me and I’m going to be excited about.”
If he gets the chance to wander around, Ryan knows where he’ll go.
“The Olympic pool,” he said. “I want to go off the highest dive they have.”
Since that’s not likely to happen, Ryan and Baz will just focus on the reason they’re headed to Tokyo.
“Winning is probably the only thing I’ve really thought about so far,” Baz said. “I’m going to go out there and pitch the best I can to give us a chance to win.”
“We’re going there to win the gold medal,” Ryan added. “Until the last game is over and we have that medal on, I’m not going to focus on anything else.”
Who’d expect anything less from Captain America.
10 others have N.C. ties
Ten other players on the Team USA roster have ties to North Carolina. Like Ryan and Baz, a pair of veteran pitchers took the mound for the Durham Bulls in the past. Edwin Jackson was a Durham pitcher in 2006, and Scott Kazmir started a pair of injury rehab games for the team in 2008 and 2009.
The Tar Heels also have a pair of alumni on the team. Catcher Tim Federowicz played for UNC from 2006 to 2008 after starring for Apex High, and Ryder Ryan went from North Mecklenburg High to UNC in 2016.
A pair of former White Sox prospects played for Kannapolis, Winston-Salem and Charlotte on their way up the Chicago ladder. Infielder Eddy Alvarez will be looking for his second Olympic medal after taking silver in Sochi in 2014 in short-track speed skating. He played for Chicago’s trio of N.C. teams from 2014 to 2018.
Pitcher Anthony Carter also went from Kannapolis to Winston-Salem to Charlotte from 2008 to 2012, while Bubba Starling began his pro career with the Burlington Royals in 2012.
Former major leaguer Todd Frazier spent part of 2009 with the Carolina Mudcats, and pitcher Anthony Gose began his move from the outfield to the mound with Down East in 2018. Pitcher Nick Martinez was with Hickory in 2012.