With win over Canada, Team USA avoids WBC disaster
PHOENIX -- Five outs from international indignity. Just five outs stood between the United States, a team loaded with $141 million worth of players, losing to Canada, a team that had shut down the upper-tax-bracket stars with four pitchers with the combined career Major League win total of ... one. Only five more outs, and Team USA would be relegated to a last-place finish in Pool D of the World Baseball Classic, an embarrassment that would force the Americans to win a qualifying tournament in 2016 just to gain admission to the next WBC, along such baseball superpowers as Israel, France, Great Britain and Thailand. Maybe Burkino Faso joins the fun.
The WBC, struggling to gain traction with American baseball fans, was in danger of becoming even less relevant with two more rounds still left in the tournament.
And then one man saved America. Saved the tournament, at least on this soil. Saved Bud Selig from a miserable next 10 days. Saved Marlins Park, site of the second round, from thousands of empty seats.
It was the same man who first came to mind of Team USA manager Joe Torre two days earlier when he was asked which player, after being around this group for almost a week, most impressed him.
"Adam Jones," Torre said. "The way he goes after it is impressive. He wants it."
Down 3-2 in the eighth, down 1-2 in the count to pitcher Phillipe Aumont, Jones scalded a slider on a line and through the left-field gap. Amazingly, the runners, Willie Bloomquist on second and David Wright on first, were running on their own with the pitch -- a gambit that, had it failed, could have brought sudden death to the rally.
Instead, both runners scored on what was not just a double, but also the signature moment of this tournament for the Americans. It pulled the U.S. from behind to ahead, 4-3, in a game it would win, 9-4, a final that belies the game's danger quotient.
Jones gave them their breath back. And only then, once Jones pulled into second base, did the Americans, who for three days lacked the emotion so evident in other teams in this tournament, erupt in high fives, fist pumps and the passion that had been visible in other dugouts. Much of the crowd of 22,425 let loose with chants of, "USA! USA!"
The World Baseball Classic, at least on U.S. soil, had been saved.
"Wearing USA across your chest is a little different," Jones said, comparing it to playing for his MLB team, the Baltimore Orioles. "You're representing a larger group of people. It's just a special occasion for everyone, even the repeat guys for Team USA and the first timers like myself."
The WBC is an imperfect event, what with top players taking a pass on it and the limitations on pitchers. The normal rules of baseball don't apply. The U.S., for instance, couldn't turn to a bevy of left-handed relievers to protect the lead against the lefty-dominant Canadians because their Major League clubs restrict when they can be used, this being the time of year when their arms are not ready for regular-season workloads.
But the quirkiness of the tournament is part of the charm, too. This is not Major League baseball. It's a glorified American Legion tournament, where fortunes turn with one swing and the normal rules of engagement get thrown out the window. See the Mexico-Canada brawl Saturday. Then there was Shane Victorino, Ben Zobrist and Jones all trying to drop sacrifice bunts for the U.S. on Sunday. (Only Jones, who had 32 homers and no sac bunts last year, succeeded.)
So go ahead, if you prefer not to like the tournament, to keep accentuating what the tournament is not. But to do so is to miss the brilliance of what it is.
"The competition I've seen has been ferocious," Torre said.
On Sunday you have all-star Major Leaguers playing intense baseball with their pride on the line. You had middle infielders Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Phillips leaving their feet on defense for any balls hit anywhere near them. You had a game in the second week of March that counted, with the intensity of a postseason game, and included five of the past 12 MVPs (Joey Votto, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Braun). You had one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, Jameson Taillon, challenging the All-Star-laden USA lineup. And you also had a guy like Dustin Molleken, a reliever for Canada who never has pitched in the big leagues, who tried with the Rockies and Pirates, and who moved on to pitch for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan. All he did was throw two shutout innings against the stars from the States.
The strategic manner in which the U.S. used its pitching made little sense -- until you understand that Major League managers and pitching coaches run this team as much as Torre. Team USA pitching coach Greg Maddux scripted the pitchers' schedule weeks ago only after touching base with their clubs to find out their preferred schedules.
For instance, the Washington Nationals wanted Ross Detwiler to throw Saturday to remain in rhythm with his throwing schedule. Detwiler was dominant in four innings against Italy, in a game the USA already had in hand. (By the way, Detwiler is so impressive that if the Nationals have three starting pitchers better than him -- and they do -- you can start booking your trip to Washington for the World Series.) But for the purposes of this tournament, Detwiler should have been pitching behind lefty starter Derek Holland on Sunday to give the U.S. another left-handed arm who could pitch multiple innings. Canada starts seven left-handed hitters.
Instead, Torre began the game knowing that he was obligated to use three right-handed relievers against Canada, regardless of the score or situation: Heath Bell, David Hernandez and Craig Kimbrel. Why? The three of them had not yet pitched in the tournament and "needed work."
The handcuffing nearly blew up on USA when Hernandez entered in the eighth to protect a 5-3 lead. He loaded the bases, gave up a run on a sensational fielding play by Phillips, and needed to be rescued by another right-handed reliever, Steve Cishek, who obtained a ground ball to leave the bases full in a one-run game.
Somehow, after losing to Mexico, after starting the tournament tight with only five hits in 33 at-bats with runners in scoring position, after staring into the eyes of a first-round knockout, the U.S. pulled through Pool D. And when it was over, when 2011 Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel struck out 2010 MVP Votto, the Team USA superstars transformed into something most entertaining of all: they looked like American Legion players who had just won a tournament.