PHOENIX, Ariz. - The blueprint may be familiar, but the results are changing.
For all three games in Pool D of this World Baseball Classic opening round, Team USA fell behind but managed to pull out two wins. At its core, that means more baseball for this intrepid band of warriors and moving to Miami for the semi-final round.
The end result was a 9-4 come-from-behind victory over Team Canada before 22,425 Sunday afternoon in Chase Field. The result propelled the United States into the next round beginning Tuesday in Marlins Stadium.
The drive and passion of wearing USA across their collective chests continues to act as a powerful, driving force. The sense of pride and purpose also worked into the dialogue and before the sun set in the desert, the Americans transformed gloom and doom into triumph.
Yet, the pattern of falling behind early seems to inspire the Americans. When the fans began chanting “USA, USA, USA” and several “stars and stripes“ waved through the stands, players bought right into the emotion of the moment.
“When I look into the stands and see the flags waving and the fans screaming USA, I love it,” said second baseman Brandon Phillips, who came up the defensive play of the game to preserve the win. “That’s a great atmosphere and we definitely feed off of that.”
Trailing in his tournament is nothing new for the Americans. On Sunday, the push started rather late in the contest.
Down 3-2 in the eighth inning, Phillips opened with a double to the gap in left center. Catcher Joe Mauer followed with a single to tie the game and, at that point, manager Joe Torre inserted Diamondbacks’ Willie Bloomquist to run for Mauer. David Wright followed with a walk and with increased speed on the bases, Torre had a number options.
Instead, he gave centerfielder Adam Jones, the next hitter, the green light, and Jones promptly drilled a two-run double over the head of Tyson Gillies, the Canadian centerfielder. That created a one run lead and Shane Victorino then followed for a RBI single to boost the American lead to 5-3.
D-backs reliever David Hernandez was brought in his usual set-up, eighth inning role, but struggled. Allowing three single which loaded the bases, he faced left-fielder Adam Loewen (.227 at AAA Buffalo last season).
Loewen, 2-for-3 at that point, ripped a grounder in the hole between first and second. Phillips moved to his left, made a strong stab and threw out the runner. One scored, but Phillips prevented the kind of inning which usually proves fatal.
“The ball had a slight hop and I was able to get a glove on it,” Phillips said. “If it stayed low to the ground, it gets through.”
Throwing 29 pitches in recording two outs, Hernandez wrestled with the moment and Torre simply said, “he had just thrown too many pitches in that inning.”
Later in the ninth, first baseman Eric Hosmer of Kansas City created breathing room for Team USA when he smacked a double with the bases loaded in the ninth and knocked in three important runs.
D-backs reliever Heath Bell opened the Chase Field portion of his career with the win. In his first appearance in this tournament, he pitched a perfect 1-2-3 inning in the seventh.
“This was probably the biggest win in my career,” Bell said. “There is so much pride wearing this uniform and seeing USA across the chest. We have a great staff here and (Torre) believes in the bullpen. He showed also showed a great deal of confidence in me.”
Still, the American came-back victory was impressive as starter Derek Holland said, “once one guy gets going, the rest of the them are going to catch fire, and they did it (Sunday).”
Coming off a .287 season in Baltimore last year with 32 home runs and 82 RBIs, Jones came up in the eighth with the American fate in his hands.
“It was my first time in the post-season, so I was all wrapped up,” said Jones. “Just seeing the atmosphere helped me to relax. These games do mean a lot and I don’t necessarily need to be the man. Sometimes take a deep breath and take the walk.”
Instead, the ball flew off his bat, found its way to the fence and now Team USA finds their way to Miami to begin life anew.
The residual effect of the Saturday fight between Mexico and Canada remained fresh in the participants’ minds the next day.
Even those not involved, like Team USA, took steps to remind listeners that the criteria of this World Baseball Classic format is much different than the game they are used to playing in the regular season.
The obvious reason is the number of scheduled games, or lack thereof. In this tournament of 16 teams, divided into the quarter-final round, semi-final round and finals, the opening round consists of only three games among four teams. The prospect of creating ties of only three games played remains very real.
To that end, the gods of the World Baseball Classic decided the tie-breaker would be run differential. In a complex criteria, there are scenarios involving mathematical equations and factors also involving run differential in victories and losses.
While managers and team officials may have a comprehension of the rules, players tend to lack an understanding.
That factor led the ugly madness which decorated the playing field of Chase Field Saturday afternoon.
“A big part of it was caused by the fact I don’t think the player know the rules,” Torre said before Sunday’s game. “I think in the future the players should be made more aware and understand that it’s a little different than the game we play we’re used to playing. Protocol needs to take place.”
The Americans move to the semi-final round with Italy, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. This is double elimination, and the United States will open play at 8 p.m. Tuesday night.
After Sunday’s game, Torre said he’s uncertain who will start of the U.S. Tuesday but he’s leaning toward Gio Gonzalez of Washington. A left-hander, Gonzalez is coming off a stellar 21-8 season with the Nationals a year ago and finished with a 2.89 ERA.
Torre hinted he may come back with knuckleball R. A. Dickey in the next game. Dickey was the loser to Team Mexico in game one of this tournament last Friday night.
IN THE HOUSE
The crowd of 22,425 Sunday pushed to total attendance for Pool D venues at Salt River Field and Chase Field to a combined 115,183.
The next event at Chase Field is the Diamondbacks home opener Monday night, April 1, at 7:10 p.m. against the St. Louis Cardinals.