MIAMI -- Team USA second baseman Brandon Phillips meant it as a compliment to the World Baseball Classic, the third straight one with the U.S.?stuck with a fitting 10-10 record in the tournament's history?failing to advance to the final. "You just see how everybody's passion is totally different than our country," Phillips said.
It's true that sometimes the WBC looks like a bigger version of EPCOT, a trip around the baseball world accompanied by loud music, thrilling rides, colorful costumes, infernal airhorns and cultural differences to behold. That baseball could be played so differently?think many very different covers of the same tune?is a sweet reminder in a small window of time.
But Phillips inadvertently hit on how the USA has been held back in this tournament. The Americans bring Major League Baseball sensibilities to tournament baseball. What that means is they suffer from trying to satisfy 30 general managers, a passive-aggressive approach at the plate, and a lack of emotion (not desire) because, well, there is that unwritten code of how a Major League player is expected to act. Phillips himself ditched his diamond earrings for this tournament.
Every one of those elements was again in play last night as the Americans went out of the tournament with an astoundingly lackluster 4-3 loss to Puerto Rico, a team that used six pitchers: five Minor Leaguers and a closer out of organized baseball. The $141-million worth of players bowed out as it played this tournament: quietly.
"There's passion on both sides," manager Joe Torre said. "I think people exhibit the passion a little bit different. It doesn't mean they want it any less or somebody wants it more because they show it."
True enough, but the rest of the world is playing by different rules. Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez used in relief the starting pitcher he had lined up for today, Fernando Cabrera. Torre pulled his starting pitcher, Ryan Vogelsong, who was in control of the game, in the middle of an inning rather than let him throw the seven more pitches he was allowed under the pitch-count rules.
"It's still Spring Training, and they're still getting there," Torre said about building the pitchers' workloads, "and we weren't going to push anybody."
It's why it's so hard for the American fan, who knows only Major League baseball, to buy into the WBC. Even though the games are exciting and hotly contested, and the best thing to happen to March since a certain basketball tournament, you know you're not really watching a Game 7. It's like a knockoff Rolex: It's fun more than it is authentic. You know that Vogelsong had no business coming out of the game otherwise. And you had to know that Vinnie Pestano had no business pitching to a lefthander with the game on the line when you have Jeremy Affeldt in the bullpen.
Team USA trailed 1-0 in the fifth when Torre pulled Vogelsong with two outs and one on. Torre brought in Pestano, a 28-year-old setup reliever who never has pitched in a big spot on the big leagues, which is to say he pitches for the Cleveland Indians. It was quickly apparent Pestano was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mike Aviles smashed his first pitch for a single. Pestano walked Alex Rios on four pitches, none of which were close to the plate. It was like watching a B-Grade horror flick, when the girl comes upon the door of a darkened room?with creaky latches, no less?and wonders if she should enter. You cringe. You just know what's going to happen next, and it's not going to be good.
"He had good stuff," Torre said. "He was just trying to overthrow."
Now the bases were loaded, and the U.S. had reached the tipping point of its tournament. It was playing a win-or-go-home game with an offense that couldn't hit a lick. In other words, their margin of error was down to almost nil.
The batter was Carlos Rivera, a 34-year-old Mexican Leaguer who last played in the big leagues eight years ago and with his roundness seems to have taken a break from the shooting of "Eastbound and Down." Rivera bats lefthanded. In the U.S. bullpen was Affeldt, the lefthanded reliever who makes $6 million a year and has come through the crucible of postseason baseball, including the World Series, with toughened skin.
Torre and his pitching coach, Greg Maddux, left Pestano in to pitch against Rivera. Pestano, jumpy, with no command of a breaking ball in the biggest spot of his life, walked the 34-year-old Mexican Leaguer, forcing in a run.
Now it was 2-0. Still, nobody moved from the dugout to fetch Pestano. One hit, with the way USA was struggling to hit, loomed as a crusher.
The next batter was Andy Gonzalez. If you haven't heard of Andy Gonzalez, you probably haven't been following the Southern League, Pacific Coast League and other minor leagues for the past decade. Gonzalez had cups of coffee with the White Sox, Indians and Marlins?but no sips since 2009?while wracking up 1,024 Minor League games. He has more miles than the Madden cruiser.
Pestano worked ahead, 0-and-2. And then he threw another of those jittery breaking balls. It hung on the inside half of the plate, fat and delicious, like a ripe apple hanging from a tree, whereupon Gonzalez, minor-league journeyman or not, walloped it off the left-field wall for a double. Four-nothing, Puerto Rico. Ballgame.
"I know he walked in a run," Torre said, "but the thing that hurt us [was] the 0-2 base hit with the slider."
Yes, the USA did rally in the eighth, but they fell short with the last two outs in the inning made by Giancarlo Stanton, who popped out with the bases loaded, and Eric Hosmer, who grounded out. Pestano (Indians), Stanton (Marlins), Hosmer (Royals) and Tim Collins (Royals) all seemed uncomfortable upon leaving losing teams to play in games that actually mean something. Hosmer, who hit .231, strangely kept getting jammed with mediocre fastballs.
Raise your hand if you had Team USA hitting one home run in the six games in the tournament?as many as mighty Australia, and none in their final 159 at-bats. The outfield of Ryan Braun, Adam Jones and Stanton had no home runs and just six RBI, four of them by Jones.
How bad was it last night? The Americans got shut down by starter Nelson Figueroa, who has the worst career winning percentage (.364) of any active pitcher with at least 499 innings, his Major League total. He spent all of last year in Triple-A and turns 39 in May. They went down in all four of their last at-bats against J.C. Romero, a 36-year-old closer without a job. Hosmer, Jones, Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins typified the tight baseball USA played: they took strikes and swung at balls.
"Certainly we didn't swing the bats great," Braun said. "There's no excuses. There's no necessarily rhyme or reason for it."
Braun is correct. The WBC is the ultimate small sample. One hit by Stanton or Hosmer might have sent the USA to San Francisco, and we would judge this team very differently. But it didn't happen, and the American knockouts in the WBC share the same DNA. The players who show up are wonderfully committed and speak without exception to the fun and honor of taking part in it. They will go back to their Spring Training camps as ambassadors for the WBC. But they play baseball in a patient manner here?knowing their Major League season is more important?that lacks the edge other countries enjoy.
Before the game, for instance, Puerto Rico centerfielder Angel Pagan gave an impassioned speech in the dugout to his teammates, reminiscent of how Giants teammate Hunter Pence preached the gospel of winning baseball with his club before postseason games. They jumped on Vogelsong for a quick run.
Against Italy, the Puerto Ricans held an impromptu prayer service in the dugout in the middle of the game, led by Carlos Baerga. The Dominicans, Italians, Dutch, Japanese ... the whole lot of them, all played with a feeling in their hearts that this was bigger than the regular season. That's simply not true of the Americans, no matter how earnest their intentions.
Every USA game, including this one, if you looked at any time at the two dugouts you would see two stories. The opponents were railbirds, lined up on the top step and leaning on the rail. The America rail would be bereft of any life, save for a coach or two. The Americans sat down constantly.
Did dugout posture decide baseball games? Of course not. But it's one of many windows into how the U.S. brings less of an edge than every opponent they play. It's the typical passive-aggressive Major League Baseball approach: take pitches, run up a pitch count, stay cool, wait for something to happen, don't get too high or too low because it's a long season?except it's not a long season.
After watching the Dominicans beat the USA with more energy and demonstrative passion, USA pitcher R.A. Dickey said it looked like "Jose Reyes cloned himself, like a lineup of nine Jose Reyes running around ... They score a run and it's 'fiesta on.'"
To play a Major League season like the Dominicans, Dickey said, "is unsustainable. You'd be running out of gas after about 40 games. Everybody would be saying, 'My arms are tired. My voicebox is tired.'"
The WBC is not 40 games. It's not Major League Baseball. We are reminded of that every game, including when the Americans lose to minor league pitchers. It's one of the many beautiful things about this tournament. Baseball is like jazz: Maybe it was born in America, and we are still the best at it and think of it as "ours," but it belongs to the world. And to see it interpreted different ways is really what the WBC is all about.