Team USA Report: Surviving the Group of Death
Every international sports tournament has it: The Group of Death. A group so evenly matched and so stacked with talent from top to bottom that not even the most supremely talented seleccion sucked into its unforgiving vortex can consider themselves assured of advancement.
Admittedly, no one expected this year's WBC Group of Death to come in the form of Pool D in Phoenix. While the presence of the three North American nations meant that there wouldn't be many easy games (with Canada v. Mexico seeming to be an especially pivotal matchup), let's be honest: Groups of Death involving Italy are more at home in the soccer or rugby union World Cups than the WBC.
However, the Group of Death it was and early on it looked as if Team USA would be one of it's victims. The scene at Chase Field on Friday night was a familiar one: the United States and Mexico (aka Los Eternos Rivales or The Eternal Rivals) faced off in the southwestern United States in front of a mostly Mexico-supporting crowd (by a 60/40 margin). The only thing missing from this chapter of this bitter sporting rivalry soccer nets.
Unfortunatley, the result was not much different than many of the soccer matches contested under similar conditions as Mexico came away with the victory. Team USA starter R.A. Dickey gave up a particularly un-R.A. Dickey-like four earned runs on six hits in four innings. This effort, combined with an anemic offensive performance from the Americans, rendered the game hopeless almost from the moment home plate umpire Todd Tichenor yelled "Play Ball!".
So, there was now no tomorrow for Team USA. They faced a pair of must-wins against Canada and Italy - who had opened their WBC on Thursday by handing Mexico closer Sergio Romo a rare blown save en route to a 6-5 win in the lone Pool D contest at the Salt River Fields at Talking Stick spring training complex. The Red, White, and Blue benefited from a Canada victory over Mexico earlier on Saturday which relieved the United States from the pressure of a potential three-way tie which would have made it necessary to not only beat Italy, but to blow them out if they were to win the group and avoid the juggernaut Dominican Republic in their opening game of the second round.
Admittedly, the prospect of Italy being a difficult team to beat in a baseball tournament is not as absurd as it sounds at first hearing. Not only is Italy 9th in the IBAF (international baseball's governing body) World Rankings and home to a professional baseball league, but their national team for the WBC was laden with Italian-American MLBers such as IF Nick Punto and OF Chris Denorfia. That said, given a look at the totality of the two rosters, the fact that this matchup was of such concern was likely a slight embarrassment to those in the Team USA clubhouse. The game started out as many feared as Italy raced out to a 2-0 lead after two innings. The United States clawed back with a run in the fourth inning when Ryan Braun scored on a Joe Mauer double to left field.
The turning point of the game for Team USA, and their entire tournament to date, came in the fifth inning as they pounded out five runs on three hits including a David Wright grand slam that gave Team USA a lead that they would not give up as relief Pitchers Jeremy Affeldt and Ross Detwiler (who picked up a four-inning save) combined to pitch five scoreless innings of relief.
This left only one game to play in Pool D: A virtual Game 7 between the United States and Canada. Winner goes on to Miami for Pool 2 second-round play. Loser gets dispersed back to their respective MLB spring training camps. Even worse for the United States, the consequence for losing included the ignominy of having to qualify for the 2017 WBC (kind of embarrassing when Americans invented the sport).
It was another slow start for the Americans as Canada matched Italy's feat of getting out to a 2-0 lead after two innings. The USA evened the score with two in the fourth, but ceded the lead back in the sixth as Canada scored a single run. I'll be honest, it was looking bleak to me. I was preparing to write a recap about our national team having to qualify for the world championship of our National Pastime and what this meant for the future of USA Baseball and the WBC itself.
But then, it happened. A pair of three run innings marked by RBI hits from Adam Jones and Shane Victorino in the eighth and Jonathan Lucroy and Eric Hosmer in the ninth. Craig Kimbrel took to the Chase Field mound in the bottom of the 9th and dispatched Tyson Gillies, Taylor Green, and Joey Votto in order. Ballgame! USA 9, Canada 4.
Team USA baseball had pulled itself back from the brink of the abyss and actually ended up winning the Group D pool.
Next stop: Marlins Park in Miami for a matchup on Tuesday at 8:00 PM ET with Puerto Rico who finished second to the Dominican Republic in the Group C pool.
Between Taiwan, Korea, and the Netherlands, you had three teams who were more talented than the second team in America's group. Sure, Australia isn't any good, but the US was given a group they were supposed to breeze through.