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Big Plays, Small Ace Lead U.S. To World Baseball Classic Crown

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LOS ANGELES—There was something different about this United States team. That much was apparent early on. Its predecessors in the World Baseball Classic had been characterized largely by passivity, stoicism and, ultimately, disappointing finishes.

Whether it was their two second-round eliminations or their fourth-place finish in 2009, one could hardly tell at times if the U.S. had won or lost a game based on their players’ reactions. With accomplished but famously restrained veterans such as Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones and David Wright leading their teams, the U.S. simply didn’t project the energy or enthusiasm needed to compete in the two and a half week sprint that is the WBC.

That was especially apparent against the passionate precision of Japan, the boundless energy of the Dominican Republic, the underdog drive of the Netherlands or the prideful joy of Puerto Rico. And then this team came along. It was younger, a bit less proven, hungrier than those that came before it. Before long, the narrative that U.S. players simply didn’t care about the WBC was quickly rendered incompatible with the current group.

There was Eric Hosmer, pounding his chest and faux-ripping his shirt, a la Superman, after big hits. There was Adam Jones, leaping and crashing into walls and letting out roars for all to hear after he’d brought the crowd to its feet. There was Marcus Stroman, shimmying his shoulders and exuding his incomparable swag on the mound. There were unheralded relievers Pat Neshek and Tyler Clippard and Luke Gregerson, pumping their fists and letting out exhortations of joy after escaping key jams.

There were Christian Yelich and Andrew McCutchen, flashing giant smiles after every key hit or big play. This team was different. This team wanted something. And this team had the potent mix of passion, desire and talent to channel it into concrete results. By the time they were done, they had claimed the World Baseball Classic championship for the United States for the first time.

“The way this team came together and just went out every night and did anything we can to win, it was special to be a part of. It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball,” said Yelich, the Marlins’ 25-year-old outfielder. “I think we just all had a common goal when we came here. There was only one thing on our mind, (which) was to win this thing and to do whatever we can to win. I think that helped us come together.”

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Staying The Course

Things began inauspiciously for Team USA in the first round in Miami. It labored through a 3-2, 10-inning win against Colombia and blew a five-run lead in its next contest, a 7-5 loss to the defending champion Dominicans in front of a raucous, pro-D.R. crowd. It was at that point manager Jim Leyland made a choice. The 72-year-old looked around his locker room and saw a self-motivated group dissatisfied with how it had played. Rather than go for a big speech, Leyland decided to let his team be.

“We just kind of stayed the course,” Leyland said. “You know, these teams are good. There’s no rah-rah stuff or anything. Our guys, everybody knows what’s at stake.”

The U.S. bashed undermanned Canada 8-0 in the final game of pool play to punch its ticket to the second round in San Diego, where the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico awaited. It was in San Diego the U.S. discovered its identity. It was there it became a team that was going to fight, was going to play with everything, was going to go down swinging.

Against Venezuela, the U.S. fell behind 2-1 but scored three runs in the eighth on dramatic homers by Jones and Hosmer for the comeback victory. Team USA trailed 4-0 and 6-3 against Puerto Rico, but fought back to make it a 6-5 game with the tying run on third base. Though they lost, it was another emotional comeback effort on display. American fans picked up on it and responded. A sellout crowd packed Petco Park for Team USA’s second-round finale against the Dominican Republic, a winner-take-all elimination game.

Whereas U.S. fans had been outnumbered and drowned out at other venues, in San Diego they showed up in droves and didn’t stop screaming. The stars and stripes flew, the “U-S-A” chants never stopped and the decibel level never dipped below “loud.”

“Atmosphere was great. It was huge,” right fielder McCutchen said. “Crowds were big, crowds were great, and they were intense. I definitely felt we had the advantage up here in San Diego.”

That hit a crescendo against the D.R. In the bottom of the seventh, with the U.S. nursing a 4-2 lead, Manny Machado hit a long fly ball to center field that looked like a home run off the bat. Jones raced back and to his left in center field. He curved slightly as he approached the 396-foot sign and ran out of room. In one athletic motion, he leaped as high as his 31-year-old body would allow, stretched his left arm as high and wide as it would go . . . and made The Catch to rob Machado of the home run. The sellout crowd exploded.

Jones contorted his body in all sorts of celebratory motions. Clippard on the mound raised his arms and screamed “Oh my God.” In that moment, any notion that American players and fans didn’t care about the WBC died a sudden death.

“At the end of the day I’m not representing the Orioles, Cutch ain’t representing the Pirates, we’re not representing the Marlins, we’re representing the entire United States,” Jones said the night of The Catch. “And that right there is pretty special.”

The Grand Finale

Enter Japan, two-time winners of the WBC and undefeated in this year’s tournament. It was a team that was precise, disciplined and motivated, with anything less than a WBC championship considered a disappointment in the eyes of their countrymen. No matter. The U.S. never trailed en route to a 2-1 semifinal victory as games shifted to Dodger Stadium, playing flawless defense despite a rain-soaked infield that caused Japan to make two costly misplays.

And then came the finale. Puerto Rico was the standard-bearer for the tournament to that point. With teamwide bleached blond hair, stars such as Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Yadier Molina, and infectious energy, Puerto Rico ran roughshod through the tournament field to a 7-0 record entering the finals, with a raucous, drum-banging fan base following them to every city along the way.

The U.S. had one player who could match that energy and put him on the mound: Stroman, the irrepressible 5-foot-8 righthander whose motto is “Height Don’t Measure Heart” and isn’t afraid to let his opponents know he thinks he’s better than them. With the U.S. in the finals for the first time, Stroman soaked up all the energy and emotion he could from the crowd of 51,565, and performed like he was, indeed, the best pitcher in the world.

The 25-year-old took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and faced the minimum through six. He shimmied after striking out Enrique Hernandez to end the third. He snagged a comebacker from Lindor in the fourth and flicked it over to first base like he didn’t have a care on Earth. He walked off the mound in the seventh, biting his lip and nodding his head, letting the whole world know he had just been untouchable. It was cocky. It was bold. It was exactly what was needed to silence Puerto Rico’s dugout and fans, a task no one had accomplished before, and in the process robbed the opponent of its greatest power source. Stroman took it and made the energy his own, and before long the “U-S-A” chants and cheers rained down on him as he departed with a 7-0 lead to put the U.S. in position to win the title, which it did with an 8-0 victory.

“There was more emphasis on just winning for America,” said Stroman, who was named tournament MVP. “Obviously, this is our first win. We’ve had a few early exits in the past. So each and every guy came into this with one goal, and that was to win it. There was no one who kind of went about it lackadaisical. Everyone was into every single pitch.”

A Complete Unit

The heroes were many for Team USA on its title run. Hosmer hit .385/.500/.615. Brandon Crawford slashed .385/.429/.577. Sam Dyson didn’t allow a hit in six scoreless innings of relief. Gregerson converted three save opportunities without allowing a hit. Jones, McCutchen, Ian Kinsler and Giancarlo Stanton all took turns playing offensive standout. Team USA recorded a 2.25 ERA and .191 opponent average. Every single player was committed. The emotions were visible, the performance measurable, the results undeniable. The United States is finally World Baseball Classic champion, and is spreading the gospel to its next generation of its players.

“I don’t mean this to sound wrong, but for the most part, up until this point, the other countries were probably into this event a little bit more than the United States,” Leyland said. “But in talking to our players, I know they’re going to spread the word. I’ve had some players already tell me this is the greatest experience of their life.”

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