At 8:47 p.m. local time Saturday, American baseball fans resumed normal breathing.
Until that moment, Team USA had played 14 complete innings in this World Baseball Classic without holding a lead against Italy or Mexico. But then came a two-strike saucer from reliever Matt Torra, a thunderous swing from David Wright and a noise that echoed to Chase Field’s uppermost trusses.
A tiebreaking grand slam? A lead? A chance to … win a game?
Sure. Even skeptical American fans — like the unimaginative fellows droning “THIS! GAME! SUCKS!” rather than “U-S-A!” — stood, welled up with national pride and screamed like hell. Some even waved the Stars & Stripes.
Suddenly, the U.S. led the Italians, 6-2. It stayed that way for the rest of the night.
Breaking news: We don’t stink at baseball anymore.
“Talk about being able to exhale,” Team USA manager Joe Torre said. “That was basically what that was. We’ve been teasing ourselves for the last couple days, and all of a sudden we’ve got one busted open.
“In the clubhouse (after losing to Mexico), it was dead silence. This is a pretty determined group. They’ve only been with us for a short period of time — five days or so. But when you look in their eyes, they’re pretty special.”
We’re about to find out just how special.
For all Wright’s heroics, he merely earned his teammates the opportunity to play a game against Canada that they absolutely, positively, must win in order to reach Miami for the second round. The Americans are 1-1. The Canadians are 1-1.
The winner of Sunday’s game at 1 p.m. local time will advance to the second round in South Beach. The loser lowers the flag, packs up the gear and returns to the drudgery of spring training.
American fans had every reason to feel encouraged by their team’s crisp performance Saturday: power, defense, even a little action on the bases. When Italy’s Mario Chiarini smacked what looked like a single up the middle in the sixth, second baseman Brandon Phillips ranged deep into the hole, dove, backhanded the ball, and, from one knee, wired a perfect throw to Eric Hosmer for the final out.
Phillips raised his hands in celebration as if signaling a touchdown. The crowd roared. Phillips low-fived Jimmy Rollins and bounced off the field.
“It’s a good feeling, just knowing that we have a chance to go to Miami,” Phillips said. “It feels good. Just the way we played today, it was beautiful. Hopefully we can take that into the game tomorrow (Sunday) and try to get a win, because we really want this bad.
“We want to go to Miami. We really want to play for the country. That’s what it’s all about. Hopefully we can go out there and just play the game that we did today, and I think we’ll be going to Miami.”
Let’s table the talk about which players aren’t here — although I will note that Mike Trout, who apparently had better things to do this spring than represent his country, attended Saturday’s game as a spectator. The U.S. roster is teeming with talent, and the players who signed up have spoken passionately about their desire to become the first American team to win the WBC.
“It’s emotional,” Wright said at a postgame news conference. “You hear the ‘U-S-A!’ chants. You look up in the stands and see the flags. You look in the dugout and see ‘U-S-A’ across the front of guys’ chests and on the hats. You get caught up in the game. You get a little emotional.
“I’ve experienced what it’s like in the last WBC, making it to the semifinals, how much fun that is. It only gets better from here. I want to experience that — and more — this time.”
As lousy as they looked Friday against Mexico, the Americans should get better as the tournament progresses and they get closer to regular-season conditioning. But the only way that can happen is if they beat Canada on Sunday — a manageable but frightening proposition, considering the inspirational bump the Canadians could receive from Saturday’s brawl with Mexico.
Besides, this has been a reverse-lock group: Italy beat Mexico; Italy beat Canada; Mexico beat the U.S.; Canada beat Mexico. Team USA’s victory over Team Italy was the first game in Pool D to go with conventional wisdom.
And want to know what’s really scary? A U.S. loss Sunday would drop the Americans to last in the four-team pool, because of their loss to Mexico (1-2). Under the tournament’s current rules, that would force Team USA to re-qualify for the next installment of the WBC in 2017.
Even as an ardent supporter of the WBC, I freely admit that promoting the tournament without U.S. involvement would be calamitous.
So, Team USA’s hopes — along with the tournament’s near- and medium-term marketability — rest on the left arm of Derek Holland, who will oppose Canada’s Jameson Taillon. If Torre gets the Holland who shut down the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 World Series, then Team USA should be on its way to Miami. But Holland’s command can be scattershot, so don’t be surprised if Torre goes to his rested bullpen early. (It wasn’t by accident that Torre referred to this as “basically” a Game 7.)
Taillon is a top prospect with the Pirates who’s never pitched above Double-A. I could tell you that he’s about to encounter the most hostile environment of his career, but I don’t know that. As Team USA shook hands after closing out Saturday’s win, the public-address announcer reminded everyone that “great seats” were available for Sunday’s matinee.
Interest in the WBC among American fans will pick up in the second round … assuming, of course, that their team isn’t eliminated before then.