The U.S. can breathe a sigh of relief.
It hasn’t qualified for the second round or anything like that yet, but by beating Italy 6-2 Saturday at the World Baseball Classic, Team USA avoided embarrassment. When this is all done, they can ask their big league teammates from Venezuela how an 0-2 start feels. The U.S. win also gave mathematicians everywhere a respite. Sunday’s Canada-USA game has the simplest of formulas to determine who advances–whoever wins moves on to the second round in Miami.
“It was nice to know if we won tonight’s game we control our destiny. This way if you win it you earn it and if you don’t, you don’t,” U.S. manager Joe Torre said. “At least with Canada winning today was huge for me. We don’t have to be checking numbers or anything like that.”
Coming off of a 5-2 loss to Mexico on Friday night, Team USA faced plenty of questions about what had gone wrong. Even without Justin Verlander, David Price and others, a team that features multiple all-stars and solid big league veterans at every position was knocked off by a Mexico team that had multiple minor leaguers in the starting lineup.
Losing to Italy, the surprise story of Pool D, would have been much worse.
The biggest moment of Italy’s day came before they ever left the hotel. The 40 or so team members gathered in a large hotel room to watch the Canada-Mexico game. When Canada pulled away for a 10-3 win, Italy’s spot in the second round was guaranteed.
Knowing that it had already qualified, Italy spelled some of its starters from the first two games and substituted liberally to ensure that everyone on the team got some World Baseball Classic experience. Italy played 23 of its 28 players on Saturday. Italy heads to Miami knowing that everyone on the team now can say they played in an World Baseball Classic game.
Even with all of that, Italy made life nerve-wracking for a while. Italy actually jumped out to a 2-0 lead on starter Ryan Vogelsong with runs in the first and second.
The U.S.’s hitting drought continued until the fourth when Joe Mauer doubled in Ryan Braun. But the game turned in the fifth. Brandon Phillips singled in a run to tie it 2-2. A Joe Mauer walk loaded the bases to bring David Wright to the plate.
If you’re looking for a player who epitomizes the big league version of Team USA, Wright battles Jimmy Rollins for the title. He’s vocal of his love of playing for Team USA and he was clearly upset by Friday’s loss. Here he had a chance to provide the big hit the U.S. failed time after time on Friday night.
“Bo (hitting coach Larry Bowa) was begging for a soft single. I didn’t say it but I was hoping for more,” Torre said.
Wright crushed a Matt Torra pitch into the left field seats. Wright gave a skip as he watched the ball fly.
“You talk about being able to exhale, that was huge,” Torre said.
“I enjoy this tournament. I think it’s a great tournament,” Wright said. “When you put that U.S.A. jersey on you get a bullseye on your back so it’s a great atmosphere every time out. We want to represent the country well . . . I’m glad I could be a part of it.”
Nearly as importantly for the U.S. as Wright’s grand slam was the work of the bullpen. Ross Detwiler finished the game with four scoreless innings of relief for his first save at any level. Since only he and Jeremy Affleldt had to pitch in relief of Vogelsong, manager Joe Torre will have nearly his entire bullpen ready for Sunday’s must-win game.
“This was our plan. We were going to use Detwiler to piggy back. I love the way he pitched,” Torre said. “He was great. We were hoping for this result, obviously. Of course Affeldt did a great job of gluing both sides together.”
Canada will send Pirates righthanded prospect Jameson Taillon to the mound against lefthander Derek Holland. Taillon has little experience above Class A, but he also has better stuff than almost any pitcher the U.S. has yet faced in this tournament.