USA TODAY Sport’s Bob Nightengale breaks down the teams to watch at this year’s World Baseball Classic.
USA TODAY Sports
MIAMI – It was hardly the way Team USA wanted to flaunt its national pride, instead only reinforcing the belief Friday night that the World Baseball Classic means so much more to every other country than this one.
Still, after barely averting their most embarrassing loss at this international tournament, eking out a 3-2, 10-inning victory over Colombia on Adam Jones’ two-out, two-strike single, maybe this is exactly what the Americans needed.
While spending the first half of the game getting no-hit by Chicago White Sox ace Jose Quintana, and getting a few breaks on defensive blunders by Colombia, the game ended with Nolan Arenado leaping into Jones’ arms, Christian Yelich running over and holding them both, as the entire USA team erupted in joy.
Or was it sheer relief?
Team USA was too numb afterward to really describe their emotions, only to be grateful they survived against Colombia, a team with only five players that are on major league 40-man rosters.
“Now you know why I’m not managing anymore,’’ said USA manager Jim Leyland, appearing emotionally spent. “We hung in there. We were probably a little anxious, and at times we were probably trying to do a little too much. The thing I’m hoping is that this win takes a little bit of pressure off, and we can relax a little bit.”
“I don’t want to say, “We got to win this thing. The United States never won it.’ I don’t even want to talk about it. I think that’s the wrong avenue to go down.’’
Still, if they’re going to dispel this notion that everyone else is taking this tournament more seriously than themselves, going just 11-10 in their WBC history, USA is going need to look a whole lot better in a hurry.
If narrowly averting a catastrophic start Friday wasn’t a big enough wake-up call, they’ll get it Saturday night when they play the Dominican Republic, the defending WBC champion that has won nine consecutive games.
“You guys see the lineup, it’s unbelievable,’’ says Toronto Blue Jays ace Marcus Stroman, who’ll start Saturday for the USA. “One through nine, pretty much no weak points at all.’’
The names of Manny Machado, Robinson Cano, Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz, Carlos Santana, Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte can create nightmares for anyone with a pulse.
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Then again, who could ever have imagined that the Colombian names of Quintana, William Cuevas, Greg Nappo and Guillermo Moscoso would give USA such fits, limiting them to just six hits? It’s one thing to be shut down by Quintana, who pitched a no-hitter for 5 2/3 innings before giving up a single to Brandon Crawford and leaving the game, but quite another to be stymied by the Colombia bullpen.
“They gave us a run for our money,’’ said USA left fielder Christian Yelich, who scored the winning run. “They were playing unbelievable. That’s a game that you remember for a long time, and a great way to kick things off.’’
Still, this game may be remembered more by the different philosophies employed by the two country’s managers.
Colombia manager Luis Urueta, of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, sent Quintana out to pitch inning after inning, letting him stay in the game right up until Crawford’s single on his 63rd pitch – two shy of the 65-pitch limit.
USA starter Chris Archer was perfect in his four innings, but was pulled after just 41 pitches. It turns out those were the conditions presented to Team USA by the Tampa Bay Rays when Archer came to the team. He would pitch no more than four innings in his first start, no matter if he struggled or whether he cruised.
“I got a lot of responsibility here,’’ Leyland said, “and he was going to pitch four innings. That was the situation he had with his organization. If he threw some more pitches to get through the four innings, that would be OK. But once he got to four innings that was going to be it for him.
“It wasn’t his fault. We we’re not going to take any chances.’’
Said Archer: “It was tough, but fortunately everybody was completely on board. We knew coming into this four or five months ago, when I committed, what it was going to be, and we stuck to the plan.’’
The ultimate objective still is to remain healthy and help your team win a World Series during the season, but Archer couldn’t help admire what he saw from the other dugout. Here was Quintana, who had not thrown more than three innings in spring training with the White Sox, going out there and throwing 63 stressful pitches while trying to win the biggest game in Colombia’s history.
“I tip my hat to Quintana for going out there and taking the ball for his country,’’ Archer said. “It’s early so for him to go out there and do that. It was impressive what he did.’’
The difference, of course, is that Quintana felt as if he didn’t have a choice. The WBC isn’t just a glorified exhibition or a break from the monotony of spring training, but a point of significant pride for Quintana and other players representing teams outside the USA.
“We did not come here to enjoy ourselves,’’ Quintana said. “We have the dream to go onto the second round. I think it’s clear what Colombia is all about.
“We almost were able to touch the sky.’’
It’s hardly what the White Sox front office wants to hear, seeing their ace going all-out in early March. It’s this fear of injury that every team has for their players in this tournament, particularly pitchers.
It also symbolizes how the USA views this tournament compared to other countries.
“In the past, to be honest with you, the other countries have been more into it than our country has,’’ Leyland said. “Hopefully we’re going to change that. Hopefully we can make a good showing and get people more excited about it.’’
Well, if nothing else, Friday at least provided plenty of drama. The U.S. and Colombia were just one strike away from employing the international extra-inning rules, with the 11th inning and subsequent frames starting with runners on first and second. Leyland had already planned to use Andrew Miller in the 11th.
Miller was never needed. Yelich and Crawford drew one-out walks in the 10th, advancing on Ian Kinsler’s groundout, with Jones delivering the game winner on a flare to left-center, sending the U.S. bench into delirium in front of 22,580 fans at Marlins Park.
“I had a lot of good moments with the Orioles playing against Major League Baseball teams, but this one,’’ Jones says, “ranks up there pretty high. Now I’m able to breathe a little bit, let’s get some dinner in us, and get ready for DR tomorrow.”
Ah, yes, the powerful Dominican Republic. If Team USA wins, they will assure themselves of advancing to the second round in San Diego, and likely as the No. 1 seed in their pool. Lose, and they’ll likely still have to beat Canada on Sunday to punch their ticket.
“‘We know that the lineup the Dominican has is unbelievable,’’ Leyland says, “but hey, this is the big boys’ game. This is what it’s all about.
“They have a fantastic lineup. We think we have a great lineup. We’ll just see how it plays out.
“This is a tough event.’’