TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Ryan Braun and Ryan Vogelsong are out, Team USA is ruined.
Either that, or a much simpler reason a club loaded with big league All-Stars got jettisoned in the World Baseball Classic: For one night, a pitcher who is the very definition of a journeyman became the best pitcher in the universe.
“As an American, I wanted them to win. It’s surprising,” Cincinnati outfielder Jay Bruce said. “They had a great team out there, but that’s baseball.”
A day after Joe Mauer, Brandon Phillips and this latest U.S. team again failed to reach the championship game, there was plenty of talk around the sport about what Friday night’s 4-3 loss to Puerto Rico meant.
Some wondered whether the United States should put together an even more packed roster next time. Others say the U.S. has lost its hold on the game it invented. Many suggest the format of the tournament needs to be tweaked.
“It was a bit of an upset,” said Milwaukee infielder Taylor Green, who played for Canada in the WBC. “Both teams were good. But with one game in baseball, you just never know. It might have been different if it had been in the regular season.”
Whatever, there was only one thing for sure – Nelson Figueroa, who was born in Brooklyn and has pitched all over the globe, threw a fastball that never topped 88 mph and still put his team into the semifinals while eliminating manager Joe Torre’s side.
Defeated by the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico in Miami, the U.S. team watched those two clubs advance to the finals. They’ll join two-time Japan, which doesn’t have a single major leaguer on its roster, and a surprising squad from the Netherlands starting Sunday in San Francisco.
For Team USA, it was a semi-familiar result – the club didn’t reach the semifinals for the initial WBC in 2006, then lost to Japan in the 2009 semis.
Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens, with his unlikely semifinal club, figures attendance at AT&T Park for the last two rounds might take a hit without the Americans. He is thrilled to see baseball’s continued growth worldwide, yet still considers the Americans the best team in the world despite their absence in this event again.
“I think it’s gotten to where Major League Baseball again is globalizing the game and you can’t tell who is going to be in the finals. The better teams who play better are going to be here,” Meulens said Saturday in San Francisco. “Teams have played better than the United States has played, no knock against them. But that’s the beauty of having competition within countries. To say they should be here? Maybe yes, but at this point they’re not.
“The branching out of the MLB program to go overseas and then bring them back here to play tournaments like this, anybody can win,” Meulens said.
Nationals pitcher Ross Detwiler was back at spring camp Saturday, having pitched well earlier in the WBC.
“It was kind of cool getting my first-ever save, but it wasn’t enough to get to the championship round and that was the ultimate goal,” he said.
Vogelsong, the winning pitcher in Game 3 of the World Series last October, dismissed talk that his U.S. teammates treat these matchups merely as an extension of spring training.
“These games are intense. They mean a lot. There’s a lot of pride at stake. Being in the postseason and being here is very similar. It’s quite honestly the same. For people to think this is just an exhibition, that’s just false.”
Plus, the U.S. team had beaten Puerto Rico 7-1 three days earlier behind Gio Gonzalez.
It piques some fans that many top names were not on the roster. Justin Verlander, David Price and Jered Weaver were among the best pitchers absent, while Mike Trout, Buster Posey and Josh Hamilton weren’t in the lineup.
That’s led many fans to say the timing of the tourney should be changed to somehow make it convenient for every star to take part.
But, the U.S. lineup against Figueroa featured three former MVPs – Mauer, Braun and Jimmy Rollins. The lone player in the starting nine who wasn’t an All-Star was Kansas City first baseman Eric Hosmer.
Hosmer grounded out with the bases loaded to end the eighth. Royals manager Ned Yost was glad Hosmer and other young players got to participate in the tournament.
“It gives them a chance to experience a high level of competition that you can’t get in a spring training or regular-season game,” Yost said.
Hosmer was a late replacement for Yankees star Mark Teixeira, who injured his wrist swinging a weighted bat. Mets third baseman David Wright also pulled out with a strain in his rib cage.
Despite worries about injuries in the WBC, what happened to Teixeira and Wright could’ve happened as easily in camp with their New York teams.
Instead, the final defeat had more to do with Figueroa.
The 38-year-old righty is 20-35 for six major league teams, and is currently in camp with Arizona on a minor league contract for his 19th pro season. He’s pitched in Mexico, Venezuela, Taiwan, the Dominican and Puerto Rico, has played in independent ball and has spent plenty of time on the waiver wire.
Figueroa’s last big league season was 2011, when he had an 8.69 ERA in a brief stint with Houston. He played last season in the minors with the Boston and Yankees systems.
Yet for one night at Marlins Park, he was virtually untouchable, pitching two-hit ball for six scoreless innings. Until this win, his best game had been a four-hit shutout for the Mets on the final day of the 2009 season.
Funny thing, too, about that shutout Figueroa threw against Houston at Citi Field. The final out was a flyball caught by Angel Pagan – it was Pagan who also gathered in Jimmy Rollins’ fly for the last out Friday to seal a win Figueroa will cherish forever.