With USA's help, WBC proving more than exhibition
MIAMI -- Is this good enough? Is it enough for you that Team USA is acting like the mighty baseball power it should be with this killer lineup? Is it enough that Thursday night we get a game between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic in the middle of March with 24 All-Stars with the winner going to San Francisco to play in the World Baseball Classic semifinals?
What more do you want? A second baseman turning one double play on his knees and starting another by hitting the ball with his hand? Twenty-eight baserunners and 14 runs in the past 10 WBC innings for a USA team that is flat-out mashing the ball and running the bases as if prepping for an Olympic relay team? A stadium packed with more musical instruments than a philharmonic hall? More outlandish celebrations and -- get this -- all-out hustle that would never pass muster in an MLB regular season?
Check, check, check and check.
With an opening game loss to Mexico, Team USA fell to 7-8 in its WBC history. The pressure mounted. The Americans have been carrying the flag not just for their country, but also for the tournament. Let's be real: as great as the buzz has been in places such as Japan, the Netherlands and Italy, this tournament needs the USA to at least get to the finals to really put an imprint on the American sports fan's calendar. With wins over Italy, Canada and Tuesday night over Puerto Rico, 7-1, Team USA is rolling.
"We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of things," outfielder Ryan Braun said. "Going from first to third, scoring from first on doubles, playing defense, getting bunts down, whatever it takes."
This U.S. team is remarkably athletic and versatile. On Tuesday it overwhelmed a game but weak Puerto Rico pitching staff. In particular, David Wright of the Mets and Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins are showing how great they can be in legitimate lineups. Wright batted three times with the bases loaded Tuesday night and delivered with a single and bases-clearing double. In the past three games he has more hits with the bases loaded (three) than he did all of last year with the Mets (two).
Stanton, batting eighth, whacked two hits and drew an intentional walk. He has seen more pitches with this team than he might all year with his Marlins team. These guys will be sad when the reality of returning to camp hits -- better to postpone it as long as possible.
Said Joe Mauer, a refugee from the Twins' camp, who also reached base three times while seeing 29 pitches in five plate appearances, "I told them in 2006 and 2009 I wanted to play as long as I was healthy, but it didn't work out. This is everything and more of what I thought it would be."
The Americans became a team, not just a collection of All-Stars, the moment Adam Jones hit that two-run double in the eighth inning to pull out the scary game against Canada on Sunday. And ever since then, as Braun said, "the personalities are coming out." They are playing Globetrotter baseball: entertaining, loose, with the outcome seemingly in hand, and the requisite dash of mustard. Second baseman Brandon Phillips turned a double play on his knees -- staying there after he had to drop down to catch a feed from pitcher Jeremy Affeldt -- and ended the game with a sleight-of-hand feed to Jimmy Rollins. All that was missing was the confetti-in-the-water-bucket gag.
Maybe the best part? Tournament baseball means all-out baseball -- something Dominican second baseman Robinson Cano had better learn. Three times runners from Italy slid hard into second base. Nothing dirty. Just good hard baseball trying to get to the bag on close force plays. Each time Cano was surprised at the traffic at his feet, including one time when Nick Punto of Italy spiked him.
"I don't care if you slide in a double play," Cano said "but when it's a force out at second base, the last thing you want is to get hurt like that."
Said Punto, "Just trying to get to second. Playing the game hard."
As one member of Team USA said, "Hey, did you see Edwin Encarnacion dive headfirst into second base? No way he does that during the season."
Such is the passion in these games that Cano, when asked to choose whether winning the WBC or the World Series was most exciting, took a very pregnant pause before saying, "Well, I would say both."
Wow. Now, Yankees fans, you might begin to understand what this tournament means to the players. Cano and Jose Reyes both took good, long appreciative looks at their home runs, followed by the team rushing out of the dugout to greet them with all sorts of hand- and back-slapping histrionics. Nobody tries to disguise the fun they are having in the WBC.
"I have no problem with any of it," Punto said. "Hey, we blow kisses. I think anything goes here. It's tournament baseball. It's not like major league baseball."
All in all, it was just another emotional day in the WBC, not to mention what goes on in the stands. Marlins Park was filled with nearly every noisemaker and musical instrument you could think of, perhaps the bassoon and cello notwithstanding. Throughout the Dominican Republic-Italy game, people blew horns, bands played and drums beat.
It was enough color and cacophony to make you forget this was unofficially Biogenesis Day at the WBC. This is, after all, also the home of the shuttered anti-aging clinic of pseudo-doc Anthony Bosch, the strip mall outlet where, according to a report in the Miami New Times, ballplayers scored their performance-enhancing drugs over the past several seasons. Among those named in the report, Dominican outfielder Nelson Cruz knocked in the winning run in the opener, Braun scored the first run of the second game, and USA pitcher Gio Gonzalez was the winning pitcher.
In the spirit of the festivities, or perhaps in a coincidentally slick grab at publicity, the Miami New Times, after a month and a half of alleged hand-wringing, waited until the WBC showed up in town to tell MLB to get lost regarding baseball's request for the publication to turn over their Biogenesis documents. Apparently it's all Judge Landis' fault. No, really.
"It started with Shoeless Joe Jackson," wrote editor Chuck Strouse in explaining baseball's "long history of getting things wrong."
Since Landis banned Jackson 93 years ago over his connection to the Black Sox scandal, goes this line of thought, MLB can't be trusted with documents alleged to spell out doping regiments and payments by ballplayers. Strouse also mentions Jeffrey Loria, the Expos, Calvin Griffith, Marge Schott, the color line and Mark McGwire and his "record" 66 home runs in 1999. There is no mention of Astroturf, the DH, the Marlins' teal hats, the White Sox's shorts, disco demolition night and 10-cent beer night. Whatever. At least he didn't mention the WBC.
And for another day, the WBC was everything the Biogenesis scandal isn't. The Italians played with three former players from the Can-Am Independent League, including Chris Colabello, who spent seven seasons there with the now-defunct Worcester Tornadoes. Colabello, now a Twins farmhand, smashed an impressive opposite-field home run off Edinson Volquez in the first inning as Italy jumped ahead, 4-0. They used four straight pitchers who never have seen a day in the big leagues to hold back the Dominicans until the dam finally burst in the seventh, when Cruz capped a three-run, game-deciding rally with a shattered-bat single.
It's one of the pleasant oddities of the WBC. A cast of journeymen pitchers, none of whom have much velocity to speak of, keep marching to the mound like they own the joint and make big-league hitters look silly. In the nightcap, Puerto Rico used three straight pitchers against the U.S. that still dream of making it to the big leagues: Mario Santiago, 28, who went 36-51 in the minors before taking his quest to the SK Wyverns of the Korean Baseball Organization; Andres Santiago, 23, a Double-A pitcher for the Dodgers; and Jose de la Torre, 27, a Triple-A pitcher for the Red Sox, who just so happened to put on one of the most impressive pitching stretches since Pedro Martinez made like Carl Hubbell in the 1999 All-Star Game.
With runners at first and second and no outs, de la Torre was staring at two MVPs, Jimmy Rollins and Braun, sandwiched around another All-Star, Phillips. De la Torre threw 13 pitches to Rollins, Phillips and Braun -- almost all of them sliders and changeups. They swung at nine of them. They missed seven times. They all struck out swinging.
It's part of the charm of the tournament. Glimpses of the never-weres and dreamers right next to the multi-millionaire All-Stars. But when the drum-banging and horn-blowing ended Tuesday, what you were left with was exactly what the WBC could have wished for this deep into the tournament: the USA against the Dominican Republic, two ferocious offenses, with a spot in San Francisco on the line. What more could you want?