By Cliff Corcoran
For the second time in as many rounds, Team USA is facing elimination from the World Baseball Classic. Following its 3-1 loss to the still-undefeated Dominican Republic on Thursday night, the U.S. will meet Puerto Rico at 7 p.m. ET Friday night in a double-elimination game to determine the last of the four semifinalists in this year's tournament, with the D.R., Japan, and the Netherlands having already advanced.
The Americans entered this year's WBC as a favorite boasting what was clearly the strongest roster in the tournament, but if they lose Friday night it will mark the second time in three iterations of this tournament that the U.S. has failed to make the semifinals and will put its record in games over those three tournaments at an even .500 (10-10). That would be a huge disappointment for the Americans, to be sure, but it could be even more harmful for the WBC's standing in this country, where nearly a third of its games are played.
Thus far, the 2013 WBC seems to be catching on both at home and abroad in a way it didn't in 2006 or 2009 thanks to a variety of upsets, some thrilling individual games and the overall passion with which it is being played. No matter what happens to Team USA, their fate won't mute the emotion of fans from the Far East and Latin America. Indeed, the rending of garments that followed Venezuela's Round 1 elimination and the passionate displays by the Dominican Republic's team and fans illustrate just how much this tournament has come to mean in those parts of the world.
However, in this country, an early exit by Team USA would only serve to draw attention to the tournament's faults, principle among them the limited participation on the part of the major league's best players, and thus could undo a lot of the enthusiasm it has engendered in American fans over the last two weeks. Even without Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout, Prince Fielder, Buster Posey and many of the nation's other top stars, Team USA boasts the strongest roster in the tournament, but an elimination on Friday night would shift the focus from the strength of that roster to the even greater pool of talent that declined to take part.
That puts additional pressure on Team USA on Friday night, pressure that will be further compounded by the absence of its hottest hitter, David Wright. When the U.S. faced elimination against Canada in Round 1, Wright reached base four times in five at-bats, and the Americans won 9-4 to stay alive and move on to the current Round 2. When they beat Puerto Rico 7-1 on Tuesday, Wright drove in five of those seven runs. However, he has been dealing with a sore left oblique throughout the tournament and just prior to Thursday's game against the Dominican Republic, the Mets decided to pull him from the lineup and call him up from Miami to Port St. Lucie to see their doctors.
Talking to the media in the wake of that decision, Wright said that the injury was not one that would have kept him out of action during the regular season and actually didn't bother him much at all, "once I get it heated up and get it going . . . it's been fine to play with." However, his daily visits to the Team USA trainer put him on the team's injury reports, and it seems the persistence of those reports finally prompted the Mets to take action on Thursday.
Per WBC rules, teams are not allowed to replace injured players mid-round, so manager Joe Torre will be forced once again to start veteran utilityman Willie Bloomquist in Wright's place at third base Friday night. Bloomquist, a career .269/.318/.345 hitter, started against the Dominican Republic Thursday night and went 0-for-2 with a throwing error before behind pinch-hit for in the ninth inning. The team's other utility man, Ben Zobrist, who by all rights should be starting these games, has made just two starts at third base in his seven major league seasons.
Even without Wright, Team USA should have the advantage on Friday. The Giants' Ryan Vogelsong will start for Team USA against Puerto Rico's Nelson Figueroa, a 38-year-old journeyman last seen in the majors with the Astros in 2011 who is currently on a minor league contract with the Diamondbacks. As Vogelsong pointed out in his post-game comments on Thursday night, he's no stranger to elimination situations. He started Game 3 of last year's Division Series against the Reds with the Giants down 0-2 in the series and held the powerful Cincinnati offense to one run over five innings to help kickstart San Francisco's comeback. In the National League Championship Series, the Giants were down 3-games-to-2 when Vogelsong took the ball for Game 6 and turned in seven dominant innings, allowing just one more run while striking out nine. Even his Round 1 start in this tournament was something of a must win, with the USA having dropped its opening contest against Mexico. Vogelsong gave up two runs in four innings to Italy, not a great performance, but enough to pick up the win and put the Americans in position to advance. Figueroa, a right-handed junkballer, turned in a similar performance against Venezuela that same day (four innings, two runs).
Puerto Rico arrives in this game, in which it will be the visitor, having needed a three-run eighth inning comeback to beat Italy 4-3 on Wednesday. Aside from centerfielder Angel Pagan and catcher Yadier Molina, who are a combined 13-for-35, its offense in the WBC has been lacking. Its four-run output on Wednesday was aided by some less-than-sterling defensive play from Team Italy, and it has averaged just 3.2 runs per game in the tournament. The U.S., by comparison, has averaged an even five runs per game with Joe Mauer (8-for-18, 4 walks) its best remaining hitter in the absence of Wright.
Should the Americans be eliminated on Friday night, it won't be unprecedented -- they went out in the second round in 2006 and the semifinals in 2009 -- but it will be a disappointment and an embarrassment for the U.S. and, in the minds of some, a blow to the integrity of the WBC. Given the recent development with Wright, it is also likely to be yet another public relations disaster for the Mets, who have already become embroiled in a feud with fallen ace Johan Santana this spring. All of that ugliness can be avoided with a win Friday night, one that the U.S. should be able to pull out in the same way that it should have had a smoother path to the semifinal to begin with.