A full recap of my experience at the World Baseball Classic in San Diego’s Petco Park. The enthusiasm was unparalleled, and patriotic passion was on full display.
If you listen to the experts in the media, the players and fans in the USA don’t care about the WBC. Many of our biggest stars opted to sit it out, again. And the fans were criticized for not being passionate or enthusiastic in their support.
This was my third WBC experience, having attended the 2006 and 2009 tournaments and thoroughly enjoyed the exposure to seeing the players from other countries, especially Japan and Cuba, playing the game we love so much. Not to mention the passion exhibited by the players and their fans.
I committed to buying tickets for the whole series, fully intending to share with friends when the time came. I was able to attend 4 of the 6 contests, sharing the others with fellow fans.
And I was not disappointed.
I attended opening night with Puerto Rico upsetting the Dominican Republic and handing them their first defeat in eleven games, dating back to the 2013 tournament. It was an exciting game with a standout performance by catcher Yadier Molina, who went 2 for 4 with 2 RBI from a HR and a 2 out hit. He is obviously their emotional leader and shows lots of emotion on the baseball field. Not just with his offense but his defense as well. It was a great start to the week and 16,637 souls showed up on a cool Tuesday night to watch the action.
Game two was what we were waiting for as it was the first opportunity for the USA team to test their skill against Team Venezuela. It was a great opportunity for home grown centerfielder Adam Jones to play in front of the San Diego crowd. He distinguished himself nicely with a HR and RBI while also playing solid defense. First baseman Eric Hosmer had a big night, going 2 for 4 with a 2 run HR.
The pitching continued to impress. Although the American pitching superstars of the sport declined to participate, Drew Smyly of the Seattle Mariners showed grit and determination. Pitching 4.2 innings with 3 hits and 1 unearned run, Smyly worked through tough spots in the first inning to limit the damage and get the USA off the field. He finished with 8 strikeouts and showed focus under pressure. (For the second round pitchers are limited to 80 pitches for their outings to decrease the strain on their arms during spring training.)
Five relievers followed to hold Team Venezuela to one more run allowed and former Padre Luke Gregerson was assigned the closer role and performed admirably.
The crowd was announced at 16,635 but sounded much bigger than that with lots of things to cheer for and loud support for local boy Adam Jones. If you look closely at the replay of his home run he can be seen pointing down to the ground while rounding first and shouting “this is my city” as he ran.
San Diego Padres
The WBC allows for fans to bring many noise-making devices into the park that are not allowed during the MLB season. These noise makers were employed liberally by the crowd to increase the noise being made during the games. The fans for Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic employ noise makers, chanting and singing to root on their teams. It seemed to take a little time for the normally staid MLB fans to loosen up a bit and adopt a different way of enjoying baseball. But adapt they did and it was obvious by the end of the game.
Night three was between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. A loss by Venezuela eliminated them from the tournament so a tough fight was expected. Sadly, what we got instead was one of the longest and most tedious nine inning games I have attended. The two teams sent out the pitching tandem of Edinson Volquez (DR) and new Padre Jhoulys Chacin (PR) as the starters and watching both of them pitch was like the veritable “watching paint dry” scenario. They both went 4.1 IP and were followed by multiple pitching changes on both sides. The game ended 3-0 in favor of the DR but the game took 4 hours and 5 minutes to play and many of the 16,390 who were there at the beginning were not there at the end.
Friday brought the USA up against one of the two undefeated teams remaining in the tournament, Puerto Rico. Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays started for the US and pitched 4.2 innings, allowing 8 hits and 4 runs. The powerful bats of Puerto Rico teed off, scoring 4 runs in the first inning and taking the air out of the US fans. But Stroman knuckled down after that and allowed no other runs while the US offense chipped away. Orioles reliever Mychal Givens pitched 0.1 innings and walked one but was the victim of two unearned runs to allow PR to increase their lead.
The loss on Friday set up the drama of the showdown on Saturday.
The afternoon game was a consolation game between Venezuela and the Puerto Ricans. It mostly featured the PR’s “B” players and a start in left field for Padres/Venezuela infielder Yangervis Solarte who had been reserved only as a pinch runner and one pinch batting appearance through the tournament. Puerto Rico won the game handily, 13-2 with 20,778 in attendance for the afternoon.
This brings us to the Saturday night showdown between USA and the Dominican team that would determine who would join unbeaten Puerto Rico in the next round in Los Angeles.
It did not start well for Team USA, with starter Danny Duffy allowing 2 runs on a double and single after an error by shortstop Brandon Crawford. The USA tied it in the 3rd inning with two singles and a double off starter Ervin Santana.
Overall, Duffy pitched 4 innings allowing 6 hits and 2 runs with one unearned. During those 4 innings the offense added 2 more runs on a single by Crawford and a towering home run by Giancarlo Stanton to the second deck of the Western Metal Supply Company building, having traveled over 400 feet to get there. The blast was reminiscent of the 2016 Home Run Derby, where Stanton launched 61 dinners and many off the same building.
It was a scoreless battle of defense until the 7th inning when Manny Machado struck a towering drive to deep center field that every one in the park knew was gone. We watched in dismay as Adam Jones leapt into the air, arm outstretched, in what we all felt would be a failed attempt to catch the rocketing ball. Only Adam Jones didn’t seem to share the collective opinion and a gasp, followed by the loudest cheer I have ever heard, erupted when Jones came down with the ball in his glove.
The USA pitcher, Tyler Clippard, raised his arms above his head and screamed “oh my God” as Machado raised his helmet in salute as he rounded first base. At that moment, the tide had definitely turned and USA seemed to sail along with it. The momentum was briefly interrrupted with a solo home run off the bat Robinson Cano in the bottom of the 7th. But the fans and the players seemed to be riding a wave of elation.
Insurance runs were tacked on to provide some breathing room in the top of the 8th when Andrew McCutchen doubled in Christian Yelich and Eric Hosmer for a final score of 6-3 USA and a trip to the final four in LA.
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The Petco Park crowd of 43.002 was the loudest I have ever heard for a ballgame. Although Puerto Rican fans were enthusiastic and loud, Team USA responded visibly to the cheering and raucous USA fans.
For those who haven’t seen the video of Stanton’s homer or Jones’ catch, do yourself a favor and go to MLB.com and take a look. If you can, pause the video on the faces of the fans behind Adam Jones as he gloves the intended home run ball. The joy and shock you see there was reflected throughout the stadium and many of us are grinning still.
Next up: The United States will take on Puerto Rico in the final Wednesday night after their 2-1 victory over Japan in Tuesday’s semifinal. The game will air on MLB Network beginning at 6 PM PT. This will be the USA’s first ever appearance in a WBC final.