SAN DIEGO — United States ballplayers and Major League Baseball have received a fair amount of grief for their lack of interest in the World Baseball Classic: That some of the greatest U.S. players such as Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw declined to participate. That teams don’t really want many players participating in it, either. That U.S. fans have much less interest compared to those from other countries such as the Dominican Republic and Japan.
And that despite baseball being America’s national pastime, the U.S. had advanced to the championship round in only one previous WBC, in which it lost to Japan in a semifinal game.
Team USA, however, shot down that criticism Saturday night in impressive fashion.
Playing the Dominican Republic, the reigning WBC champion against which Team USA squandered a 5-0 lead in a loss last week in Miami, the Americans showed they can play with intensity as well. Despite falling behind 2-0 in the first inning and nearly giving up even more runs the next inning when the Dominican Republic put runners on second and third with nobody out, the U.S. rallied with an inspired effort to win 6-3 and reach the final round of the WBC at Dodger Stadium this coming week.
The game drew a sellout crowd of 43,002 fans at Petco Park, the majority of them chanting “USA! USA!” when the Americans won. The U.S. players, meanwhile, slapped hands and exchanged high fives like they have after many other victories because that is the way they go about things and they know they still have more games to win.
“Like Adam Jones said, some of the teams show maybe physically a little more passion sometimes than we do, but don’t get that confused with really not being into it and really not caring,” manager Jim Leyland said. “It was a wonderful feeling. We’re going to the finals. We beat a great team. I tip my hat to all the teams we’ve played so far, and we beat a great team tonight, and we held down a great lineup.”
Asked earlier this week whether the U.S. players have as much fire inside as their opponents, catcher Buster Posey nodded and said, “100 percent.”
“I think definitely here in the dugout, you know guys are into it and they care,” Posey said, comparing the American players with those from other countries. “From an outsider’s perspective, I don’t know if a lot of guys’ personalities are on display. We grow up in different parts of the world and play the game differently. I don’t think it’s really fair to players from different backgrounds to act a certain way for a tournament. But it doesn’t mean there’s less fire. There are just different ways we grew up playing the games.”
Jones certainly showed that — inside and out. Jones, a San Diego native, pumped his chest and hopped excitedly when he hit a game-tying home run Wednesday night that helped the U.S rally late to defeat Venezuela. He homered again the next game against Puerto Rico. And Saturday he made a miraculous catch over the center-field fence that robbed his Baltimore Orioles teammate Manny Machado of a home run that would have narrowed the score to 4-3.
Machado tipped his cap to Jones, who said he plans to give him “some ribbing” during the regular season. “And he robbed me of a hit earlier in the first inning, too,” Jones said. “So it was just a little payback, just on a different situation.”
Giancarlo Stanton also was important Saturday, singling and scoring the first run for the U.S. and then drilling a two-run home run over the left-field fence to give the Americans a 4-2 lead. He did so after not starting in the previous two games.
“That was the toughest part, without playing a couple days and understanding we’ve got to put the best guys out there who are feeling the best, too,” Stanton said. “So you’ve got to lock it in ASAP and just get ready to go.”
The U.S. will play in Tuesday’s semifinal against Japan, the same team that knocked it out of the 2009 semis at Dodger Stadium as well. Daisuke Matsuzaka was the winning pitcher for Japan in that game, which also featured Ichiro, Kosuke Fukudome and Kenji Johjima in the lineup. But this time Japan has only one current major leaguer on the roster, Nori Aoki.
While it may not have the talent it had when it won the WBC title in 2006 and 2009 — pitcher (and hitter) Shohei Otani, perhaps the best player in the world, isn’t playing in this WBC because of an injury — Japan still has won every game in this WBC.
“The style the Japanese play with is great,” Jones said. “They play clean baseball. They’re fundamentally sound. They hit behind the runners, they hit-and-run, they pitch, they play a great, clean game of baseball. I know our style here in the States is a little bit different. We have more power, more power pitchers.
“But at the end of the day, I respect the crap out of Japanese baseball, Japanese players and just how they carry their business.”
The U.S. clearly deserves that respect as well.
“There were a lot of people that respectfully declined to play in the WBC and we’re not going to throw anybody under the bus,” Leyland said. “We’re going to honor the people that accepted and are here. So we’re moving forward and that’s all we’re talking about. … And right now that’s the only team I care about. And these players that are here are the only players I care about right now.”
And the WBC is what the U.S. players care about as well as they head to Los Angeles for the final round while many of their teammates are readying themselves for the MLB regular season in spring training.
“At the end of the day I’m not representing the Orioles, Andrew McCutchen isn’t representing the Pirates, Stanton is not representing the Marlins,” Jones said. “We’re representing the entire United States, and that right there is pretty special.”