Walk-off win proves USA's World Baseball Classic path still far from easy

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These athletes are only getting richer after leaving the field
Saturday March 11th, 2017

For the United States, the first game in this year’s World Baseball Classic was supposed to be a leisurely introduction to action: a talented, deep lineup with one of MLB’s best young pitchers on the mound at home, against an inexperienced, talent-short Colombia team making its WBC debut. For a country that has largely disappointed in the three previous tournaments but came into the 2017 edition with championship expectations, it was as easy an opening assignment as imaginable.

Instead, as Brandon Crawford stepped to the plate with two outs in the sixth, Team USA was facing a potential catastrophe. Opposite him on the mound: White Sox lefty Jose Quintana, who had stymied the Americans with a deviling mix of fastballs and sliders, holding them scoreless and hitless through 5 2/3 frames. On the scoreboard: two runs for Colombia, which had banged out three straight doubles with two outs in the fourth to send the red, yellow and blue-bedecked portions of the Marlins Park crowd into a frenzy. And if Colombia could hold onto its lead and pull off one of the bigger upsets in tournament history, the next task for Team USA would be a must-win game against the powerhouse Dominican Republic, the defending WBC champions, just 24 hours later.

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Suffice to say that, as Crawford stood in against Quintana, things didn’t look good for the Americans. But then the Giants’ shortstop broke up the no-hit bid with a sharp single to right, knocking Quintana out of the game, and the U.S. bats woke up, if only for an inning, to tie the game and save America’s WBC hopes. There was still plenty of tension after that: narrow escapes for Team USA’s parade of relievers, runners stranded, extra innings, perplexing managerial decisions, a conspicuous lack of Andrew Miller. But everything turned in the sixth, and when Adam Jones knocked in the winning run in the bottom of the 10th to give his country the 3–2 victory, the U.S. had officially passed a huge and unexpected test.

It was a sloppy, scattershot and heart-pounding night for Team USA, but it was a win that the Americans needed in Pool C, where the Dominican Republic, already 1–0 in group play after hammering Canada on Thursday, lurks as the favorite. A loss to Colombia—a roster with notable names like Quintana and Braves ace Julio Teheran but little depth and a weak lineup—would have set off a series of increasingly unlikely results needed for the U.S. to advance. But it also would have fed into the narrative that has surrounded Team USA since the inaugural WBC in 2006: Uninterested and unable to get results in a tournament in which it is regularly billed as one of the top squads but performs like anything but.

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Instead, the Americans rallied, survived some late scrapes and came out on top. Jones was the hero, driving in the first run in the sixth inning and the final run in the 10th for Team USA’s first walk-off WBC win since David Wright sent the U.S. into the semifinals in 2009 by beating Puerto Rico. Chris Archer was flawless on the mound, throwing four perfect innings and giving the U.S. hope that it does have a No. 1 pitcher after all. The bullpen bent several times but never broke, even as Miller—the best reliever on the team and the human fire extinguisher who saved the Indians time and again in the postseason—spent the entire game watching from the sidelines. It wasn’t pretty, not by any stretch, but the result is still a tournament-opening win ahead of a game against the D.R. that no longer feels like an impending panic attack.

There were still plenty of concerns for the United States, though. Against Quintana and a handful of anonymous Colombian relievers, Team USA’s star-studded lineup was held mostly in check, collecting just six hits and three walks on the night, and had it not been for the tournament’s first-round pitch limit, Quintana would have stayed in well past the sixth. The tying run scored only thanks to a swinging third strike by Nolan Arenado getting through the legs of Colombian catcher Jhonatan Solano, allowing Ian Kinsler to scamper home from third as Arenado beat the throw to first with a head-first dive. Relievers Luke Gregerson and Sam Dyson were perfect, but the rest of the bullpen was wild. Orioles righty Mychal Givens was touched up for both Colombian runs in relief of Archer. White Sox setup man Nate Jones couldn’t find the strike zone to save his life. Phillies veteran Pat Neshek weaved in and out of trouble in getting five nerve-wracking outs. The result of all that shakiness was U.S. manager Jim Leyland being forced to use six relievers to get the final 18 outs, though he at least has a fully rested Miller, as well as White Sox closer David Robertson, in reserve for Saturday’s tilt with the Dominican Republic.

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But Leyland himself was also an issue, with the 72-year-old skipper going by the book no matter what. He put the free-swinging Jones into the second spot of the order, with NL MVP finalist Daniel Murphy banished to eighth (though Murphy did go 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and a double play). The decision to pull Archer after just 41 pitches wasn't his—the Rays wanted him out after he reached either four innings or 60 pitches, which speaks heavily to where MLB's priorities lie with regards to Team USA and to the difficulties of trying to balance international competition with the importance of the upcoming season—but his refusal to go to Miller was galling, particularly once the game reached extras and a save situation was out of the picture. Most perplexing was the move to pinch-hit for Paul Goldschmidt, one of the best hitters in baseball, with Eric Hosmer with two outs and two on in the sixth and the game tied at two. Apparently playing the percentages by going with the lefty-swinging Hosmer against righthanded reliever William Cuevas, Leyland instead watched the Royals’ first baseman weakly ground out to the mound to end Team USA’s rally.

“Now you know why I’m not managing any more,” Leyland told reporters after the game. That crack was probably an admission of the stress of returning to the dugout for the first time since he led the Tigers to within two wins of winning the American League pennant back in 2013. Or maybe it was a reflection on the fact that, had Jones not won it in the 10th, the 11th would have started with two runners already on base for Colombia thanks to the flabbergasting international extra-innings rule—a thought that probably drove Leyland to fish out a Marlboro or two in the home dugout. Either way, it was an acknowledgement of what Friday night had just proven: The path to Team USA’s first-ever WBC title will not be easy, no matter the opponent. There will be tough decisions and tense moments. But as the Americans walked off the field basking in the glow of Jones’s tournament-saving hit, they can at least find solace in how they handled the unexpected challenge that Colombia threw at them right from the get go.

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