PHOENIX, Ariz. - This lifeless, listless team needed a boost.
Some boost, any boost.
After nearly sleep-walking through a defeat to Team Mexico Friday night, lethargy appeared to plague Team USA through the first half of Saturday’s game with Italy. That’s when third baseman David Wright provided emotional lightning with a grand slam in the fifth inning to power the Americans to 6-2 win over Italy before 19,303 in Chase Field.
The win provided a demonstrative lift, and set up Team USA to advance to the next round of the World Baseball Classic. To do so, they must beat Team Canada Sunday afternoon in Chase Field, and the hazard is clear.
Simple and to the point, the winner advances into the second round in Miami and the loser disperses.
When Canada eliminated Mexico earlier Saturday, that pushed the United States into a position of command. As well, the Mexican loss propelled Italy (2-1) into the next round. Two teams from each Pool advance and now, it's either Canada or the United States who will punch their ticket to Miami.
“What Canada was huge for me,” said Joe Torre, the USA manager. “With that, we controlled our own destiny.”
The Mexican defeat cracked open the door of opportunity and Wright’s bat provided the push. Until that point, the United States appeared to tip-toe through this tournament. The emotion and energy from that five run, fifth inning provided the spark this team desperately craved and desired.
After the game, Wright modestly put credit on starter Ryan Vogelsong, who supplied four solid innings and gained the victory.
“Really, it was (Vogelsong) who gave us the momentum,” Wright said. “He was able to put up zeros and guys followed with good at-bats. But, this started by putting up zeros on the scoreboard.”
While Vogelsong retired the final seven hitters he faced and struck out the last four hitters in succession, he struggled early.
As if the same pattern repeated against Italy with the opening round loss to Mexico Friday night, the United States fell behind quickly. Italy picked up single runs in the first and second innings and the Americans failed to respond.
A first inning USA threat was quickly squashed when Ryan Braun hit into a double play. Jimmy Rollins started the game with a single to center and Brandon Phillips followed with a bunt single. Then, Braun bounced into a twin-killing and the offense rested until the fifth.
In between, Joe Mauer brought the United States to within one with a RBI double in the fourth and then Wright’s slam closed the books on this one.
Down the stretch, Washington starter Ross Detwiler gave Torre four strong innings in relief and closed the game. In the process, he allowed only two base runners, a two out walk in the seventh and two-out single in the eighth inning. Over the course of the final four innings, the Detwiler, who went 10-8, 3.40 ERA with the Nationals a year ago, retired 12 of the 14 hitters he faced.
Torre wanted Detwiler to finish the game and save his bullpen for the decisive game Sunday against Canada.
Overall, the win in general and Wright’s blast in particular, represented a huge relief for this team.
“After David’s home run, we were able to exhale,” Torre said. “After the Mexico game, the clubhouse was dead silent. But these guys came back (Saturday), and by looking in their eyes, they’re special.”
In the winner-take-all finale Sunday, left-hander Derek Holland, who was 12-7, 4.67 ERA with the Texas Rangers last season, gets the ball from Torre. Right-hander 21 year-old Jameson Taillon, who went 3-0, 1.59 ERA at AA Altoona in the Pirates’ organization last summer, goes for Canada. Game time is 1:10 p.m.
Canada is the home team.
SHALL WE DANCE
While the top two teams in each of Pool A, B,C and D advancing in the tournament, the nature of this short, three game opening round clearly affects strategy.
Because a run differential rule breaks ties among teams, traditional strategy is altered to assure maximum run production. This reality acted as a catalyst for an ugly, bench-clearing affair involving Canada and Mexico in the first game Saturday at Chase Field, and set in motion discussion how best to resolve the run differential directive.
With Canada ahead 9-3 in the ninth inning, catcher Chris Robinson bunted for a single to lead off the inning. That infuriated Mexico’s pitcher Arnold Leon, who, after missing with two previous pitches, hit Rene Tosoni in the back. On the pitch before Tosoni was nailed, home plate umpire Brian Gorman warned both benches, but that did not stop Leon from taking what he considered justice into his own hands.
That precipitated both benches and bullpens to pour on the field and created an unfiltered sense of chaos, turmoil and madness.
In total, seven players were ejected and the result should be a complete examination of the rule differentiation rule.
“Because of the run rule, we approach each inning as if the score is 0-0,” said Canadian manager Ernie Whitt after the game. “It’s unfortunate what happened, and they need to take a look at this. In that situation, up 9-3 in the last inning, you would never bunt, but to stay alive in this tournament, we need to score all we can.”
The brawl incensed Mexican fans sitting behind Team Canada’s dugout. Bottles were thrown, and one hit Denis Boucher, Canada's pitching coach. Moments later, a foul ball hit into the stands was retrieved and fired at Larry Walker, Canada’s first base coach.
“Look, this was not started by us,” Walker said of the confrontation. “We were invited so we danced.”
By choice, the Canadians felt an obligation to respond and several confrontations broke out. The most visible was a heavyweight match featuring Canadian reliever 6-2, 200 pound Jay Johnson pounding away on Mexican outfielder Eduardo Arredondo, listed at 6-0, 185 pounds.
“There’s a point where you stand up for yourself,” said Canada's DH Justin Morneau, who chipped in with 4-for-5 afternoon. “We got hit for playing the game, and that happens. At the same time, you have to stand up for yourself. You can’t get pushed around.”