Apparently it will never be easy for Team USA.
Just five outs away from elimination, the U.S. rallied for three eighth-inning runs to take the lead over Canada. The U.S. then survived a bases-loaded bottom of the eighth before finally putting the game away in the ninth with a bases-clearing Eric Hosmer double. The 9-4 final score does not really explain just how tense an affair it was for USA Baseball which trailed for much of the game and didn’t take its first lead until the eighth inning.
The U.S. now joins Italy in moving on to the second round in Miami. The U.S. will face the loser of Sunday night's Puerto Rico-Dominican Republic game. It's a step toward the U.S. team’s goal of moving on to the finals in San Francisco, but more than anything it avoids a nightmarish exit.
“It would have been embarrassing to me,” U.S. second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "If we would have lost, we wouldn't have done our job. We want to be the first American team to win the World Baseball Classic."
Just as apparent is the fact that the U.S. seems to always need an early WBC wake-up call. In 2009, the U.S. was embarrassed with a run-rule loss to Puerto Rico then rebounded to advance to the second round. This time it was a Friday loss to Mexico that woke up a slumbering lineup.
And an impressive lineup it is, although Sunday's game offered a reminder that manager Joe Torre operates under restrictions that other teams in this tournament can avoid.
On Sunday, Torre benched Giancarlo Stanton and moved Ryan Braun to designated hitter so that he could get Shane Victorino and Ben Zobrist into the lineup for the first time. Torre also announced before the game ever started that he'd use relievers Heath Bell, David Hernandez and Craig Kimbrel to ensure they got their first action of the tournament.
Those handcuffs meant that Torre was not able to play matchups in the later innings. Against a Canada lineup without one righthanded hitting power threat Torre used four righthanders from the seventh inning on.
"Big league clubs are still in spring training. We're borrowing their players . . . We still have to be mindful of the promise I made to take care of these players and make sure they get back and get ready to start the season.
"We have to think the same way. We have to get at-bats. We have to get guys in the games."
There was a time when the must-do decisions appeared to be costing Team USA. Victorino was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in his first three at-bats. Hernandez struggled in the eighth inning.
But Victorino singled in a run to give the U.S. a 5-3 lead in the top of the eighth. Bell picked up the win. Kimbrel closed the game out with a perfect ninth.
Even without Stanton, the U.S. lineup was quite impressive on Sunday. And you can focus on a pitching staff that has solid big leaguer after solid big leaguer.
But there's also a hidden advantage that the U.S. should have every time it plays a game in the World Baseball Classic.
As has been mentioned countless times this week, tournament baseball is different than the grind of a 162-game season. In many ways, such a format wipes away many of the U.S.'s clear roster advantages. A good day by a young minor leaguer like Canada's Jameson Taillon can match U.S. veteran starter Derek Holland inning for inning. A hitter who can’t turn around a quality fastball may still bloop it for a single.
But tournament baseball is also ever so focused on 27 outs. And when it comes to getting 27 outs, the range of some of the U.S.'s players makes a big difference. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Brandon Phillips and third baseman David Wright are some of the best gloves in the game. Center fielder Adam Jones also makes the difficult play look easy.
"We've got a lot of Gold Glovers on this team," Jones said. "Our game is making the routine play and making 27 outs. Any team if you give them 30-31 outs, they are going to do a lot of damage."
Looked at a different way, the U.S. managed to turn the game into 24-25 out affairs by taking would be-hits and turning them into outs.
The U.S. range advantage stood out on Sunday. With Adam Loewen batting with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning, one out and the U.S. leading by two, Phillips managed to snag a grounder well to his left. He popped up to throw Loewen out. Instead of runners at first and third in a tie ball game, it was two outs and a 5-4 U.S. lead.
"If I didn't make that play we could still be playing or they could have gotten the ‘W,’ " Phillips said. "I'm surprised I made it. I looked in my glove and thought, 'Yes!' I thought, 'This is a game saver.' "
In the other dugout, Canada, Mexico and Italy are all facing significant limitations defensively. At the best, like Team Italy, the teams have middle infielders without the U.S.'s range, but with excellent reliability on balls they get to. At worst, the lack of range is combined with less reliability as well.
On Sunday, Canada wasn't always so reliable. Third baseman Taylor Green was unable to throw out Zobrist in the second inning for an error. Two innings later, Zobrist laid down an attempted sacrifice bunts. Green looked confused about whether he was to field it. He then rushed his throw, throwing wildly which allowed Joe Mauer to score. All of a sudden, Canada needed 29 outs instead of 27. Jones then hit a sacrifice fly that scored David Wright from third. Without the error, he likely would have stayed on the bases, as the next two batters were retired to end the inning.
The U.S. late comeback obscured what was an impressive outing by young Canada starter Jameson Taillon. With only a few games above Class A, Taillon took the mound against a lineup of U.S. all-stars and looked like he belonged.
Taillon generally kept U.S. off balance with a 93-96 mph fastball and a nasty curveball.
"He's got good stuff. He's got a bright future," Jones said. "You look at a guy who's 92 to 96, 97 at times. He has a sharp curveball and he's around the plate. It's just a matter of time until he's in the Pirates' rotation."
Canada's Michael Saunders was named the Pool D Most Valuable Player. Saunders was 8-for-11 with 7 RBIs, including a two-run home run on Sunday that tied the game in the second.
Team USA doesn't have much time to relax as the second round begins on Tuesday. It should be a happy group. Wearing a USA across the front of their jersey was incentive enough, but for players enduring the grind of spring training, a trip to Miami possibly followed by a trip to San Francisco is a big bonus.
"I'm not ready to go back Goodyear (where the Reds spring training is held). There's nothing in Goodyear. I want to go to Miami," Phillips said. "We just broke out. It was a beautiful thing."