Thrilling Dominican win pushes USA to edge in WBC that would be even better in July

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Sunday March 12th, 2017

MIAMI—The team that is supposed to save the World Baseball Classic is one trouncing loss to Canada away from getting knocked out in the first round. Of course, this being the WBC, in which play swings from sublime to ridiculous at any moment, the superstar-packed Team USA may be fighting for its tournament life Sunday against a pitcher who has been retired for two years, Ryan Dempster, who appears to be manager Ernie Whitt’s choice over . . . Ferguson Jenkins? Denis Boucher? Alex Trebek?

To keep the WBC “vital,” as he called it, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred is rooting for the home squad to get to a final for the first time in four WBCs in order to see if American sports fans will care about what is a great idea that is having trouble getting traction in the United States. After the Tem USA blew a five-run lead to lose to the Dominican Republic Saturday night, 7-5, its all-time WBC record dropped to a picket fence of perfect mediocrity: 11-11.

I’ll spare you the complex algorithms of how the WBC breaks three-way ties, but if the world’s most powerful baseball nation finds itself with a 1-2 record and in a three-way tie with, ahem, Canada and Colombia, the USA could find itself eliminated if it loses by five or more runs to Canada on Sunday night, a game that starts at 7 p.m. EDT.

Want to know everything that is right and wrong with the WBC? All you had to do was watch the game Saturday night in Miami, maybe with the sound turned down so as not to wake the neighbors, because this was one of the noisiest games (though not the loudest) ever contested on American soil. And then know this about the game and the tourney in nutshell:

• Nelson Cruz, who has hit 300 home runs in the major leagues, including 16 in the postseason, including one in a pennant-clinching win and two in the World Series, said the game-winner he hit Saturday night for the Dominican Republic was the biggest one he’s ever hit. “The top one,” he said.

• Though every MVP and Cy Young Award winner over the past three years—10 players who have claimed the 12 awards—were born in the United States, none of them could be bothered suiting up for Team USA.

Fans aren’t buying in when American players, general managers and managers aren’t buying in. That’s how we got the visual farce in Team USA's tournament-opening win on Friday night over Colombia of starter Chris Archer throwing more pitches in the bullpen after he was pulled after four innings, on orders from his employer, the Tampa Bay Rays.

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And playing the tournament in March is why Marcus Stroman, who pitched so brilliantly Saturday night that USA manager Jim Leyland said could get a groundball “any time he wanted,” had to extinguish his brilliance after only 64 pitches, one below the maximum allowed.

The WBC needs more than the USA in a final to get Americans interested in the tournament. It needs to be played in July, displacing the All-Star Game every four years. Sound crazy? It’s an idea that’s been kicked around by MLB and the players association in very preliminary, informal brainstorming sessions.

Here’s how it would work: The top six ranked baseball nations are invited to the WBC, with two more countries added by way of qualifiers. You have two pools of four teams each. They play Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with the top two teams advancing. Friday is the International Home Run Derby. Saturday is the Final Four. Sunday is the championship game. It works because pitchers are in midseason form and baseball has the sports landscape to itself—it doesn’t compete with March Madness or, as it does now with spring training, with itself. You’ve just created baseball’s version of Super Bowl week.

To be at Marlins Park Saturday night was to understand this tournament is seriously fun and deserves more attention. The game drew the largest baseball crowd in the history of Marlins Park. There were 37,446 people, and approximately 36,000 whistles, drums, horns, bells, cabasas, claves, cowbells, marimbas, tamboras and assorted other noisemakers that never stopped clattering, not even when the Dominican team was down 5-0 and facing a USA bullpen with Andrew Miller and David Robertson lined up.

The cliché of a sports crowd is to say it is electric. This one was unplugged: it was percussive.

Other baseball stadiums get louder: Dodger Stadium for a playoff game, Rogers Centre in Toronto with the roof closed, and the biggest decibel-buster of them all, Minnesota’s Metrodome during the 1987 and 1991 World Series, just to name a few. But none ever hosted the continuance of noise that Marlins Park did.

“It was very loud,” said USA pitcher Tanner Roark, who struggled with his command after Stroman had to leave. Asked if the crowd affected him, the Washington Nationals pitcher said, “Yes and no. I need to channel it a little better. I need to block it out and slow the game down.”

Juan Salas/Icon Sportswire

Conversely, the Dominican team rode the noise like a wave, especially once Manny Machado—who is elevating his superb game and profile with his wizardy in the field and power at the plate—began the comeback with a monster homer in the sixth off Roark.

Every time the Dominicans scored a run, they poured from the dugout in wild displays of joy, jumping like children, hugging one another and waving their arms in excitement. (When the Americans scored, nobody bothered to leave the dugout, though they did lift themselves from their seated positions in there.)

“That’s the way we play winter ball,” Cruz said. “You hit a home run and everybody leaps out of the dugout. It’s just a higher level we experienced tonight.”

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Cruz hit the homer that shook an entire nation when he lined an 0-and-2 pitch from Miller in the eighth to turn a 5-3 deficit into a 6-5 lead. Miller had not allowed a three-run homer since September of 2011, facing 162 batters since then with two or three runners on without yielding a home run. When Cruz’s ball sailed inside the leftfield foul pole, Miller bent at the waist and clutched around his knees, as if he had been punched in the gut.

For any time of year, but especially in March, it was thrilling baseball played with passion and emotion—a gift, really, from the slumber of what passes for spring training baseball games.

Maybe somewhere Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout and the rest of the Americans who chose not to sign up felt a pang of regret about missing out on the fun. (Though they were spared the indignity of wearing one of those awful dull, dark grey USA road uniforms, which make the players look like either Civil War plastic soldiers or laundry mishaps in which somebody washed the whites with the darks.)

But nobody had to apologize for the talent that did sign up. The 10 USA starters on Saturday (including the pitcher, Stroman) have earned $226 million in salary in their careers. The Dominicans were even more well-rewarded: their starting 10 had pulled in $673.7 million. That’s about $900 million worth of starting talent for those of you auditing at home.

Manfred ought to be worried about the Americans getting to the final, given how Team USA barely squeaked by Colombia and blew a five-run lead against the Dominican Republic. But the flip side is that the WBC has a place in the sports landscape because of nights like Saturday, whether Team USA makes it to Los Angeles or not. It was dramatic, emotional baseball played by some of the biggest stars in the game. It was the kind of baseball that stays with you (though that just might be the ringing in my ears). It might be even louder if you played the games in the middle of summer.

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