When last we looked in on the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic, the headlines belonged to the mighty team from the Dominican Republic and the upstart squad from Israel. The defending champion from 2013, Team Dominica rolled through the first stage of round robin play with a perfect 3-0 record to sit atop Pool C, thus stretching its unbeaten streak to eleven games after going unbeaten on its way to the last WBC title. Remarkably enough Team Israel matched that mark to win Pool A, defeating WBC stalwarts South Korea and the Netherlands as well as China. With nary a single active major leaguer on its roster, Israel had made the final sixteen team field by winning a qualifying tournament in Brooklyn last fall.
What a difference ten days make. Any fans dreaming of a David versus Goliath title game this week at Dodger Stadium, with doughty Team Israel taking on the Dominican behemoth, were getting just a bit ahead of themselves. First both had to navigate the second round robin stage, further winnowing the field down to four semifinalists. On opposite shores of the Pacific Ocean, in Tokyo and San Diego, both the pre-tournament favorite and the classic overachiever came to grief.
The second stage started well enough for Team Israel which opened with yet another win, this time over Cuba by a score of 4-1 in front of more than 43,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome. But Israel could barely plate more than those four runs in its final two second stage games combined. First the Netherlands avenged the first round defeat by thumping Team Israel 12-2. Then in a must-win game against Japan, the underdog Israelis hung in for five innings before the superior Japanese squad blew the game open with a five-run 6th, on the way to an eventual 8-3 decision that ended the 2017 WBC for Team Israel.
The Dominican Republic’s winning streak skidded to a halt in the first game of the second round, when five pitchers from Puerto Rico combined to hold the powerful Team Dominica lineup to a single run. The defending champions bounced back from that 3-1 loss to shut out Venezuela 3-0, setting up a win-or-go-home match against the United States. After falling behind early, Team USA rallied to lead 4-3 going to the 8th inning, and when Andrew McCutchen doubled home Christian Yelich and Eric Hosmer to pad the lead, Dominican hopes for back-to-back titles went a-glimmering.
The second stage results set up the single elimination semifinals at Chavez Ravine, with Puerto Rico facing the Netherlands last Monday followed by Team USA versus Japan on night later. The first game turned into a slog of more than four hours, with the teams knotted at three from the top of the 5th inning on. When the contest moved to the 11th inning the WBC’s use of special rules came into play, with runners being placed on both first and second base to begin the inning. Puerto Rico’s defense escaped by turning a double play in the top of the frame, but the Netherland’s defenders weren’t so lucky in the home half of the inning. Carlos Correa advanced from second to third on a sacrifice bunt, and then raced home with the winning run when Eddie Rosario lined out to center field.
The second semifinal was a slog of a different sort, after rain fell most of Tuesday in Los Angeles. Played in weather that alternated between a steady sprinkle and a fine mist, the game likely turned on the wet condition of the field. In a taut 1-1 tie, Brandon Crawford singled with one out in the 8th, then moved to third on Ian Kinsler’s double to center. That brought Adam Jones to the plate for the Americans. Jones slugged 29 home runs for Baltimore last season, but on Tuesday night his key blow never left the infield. A slow roller to third was bobbled by Nobuhiro Matsuda as it came off the wet grass. While the third baseman recovered in time to throw out Jones, the miscue allowed Crawford to race home with what proved to be the winning run.
This was the first time that Team USA had played its way through to the WBC final, while Puerto Rico was runner-up to Team Dominica in 2013. The Puerto Rican squad was also undefeated this year, attempting to replicate the perfect run of the Dominican Republic at the last WBC. That plus the determination of the Puerto Rican players to win for their economically depressed homeland and their buoyant bonding exemplified by most of the players dyeing their hair blond all combined to make them the favorite.
But as has been noted a time or two before in this space, there is a reason why they actually play the games. Wednesday night Team USA’s starter Marcus Stroman pitched as well for the national team as he ever has in his day job with the Toronto Blue Jays. Through six innings Stroman held Puerto Rico hitless and faced the minimum eighteen batters, erasing the one hitter he walked on a double play. By the time Stroman was lifted by Team USA manager Jim Leyland after surrendering a leadoff double in the 7th the Americans had built a 7-0 lead. Ian Kinsler hit a two-run homer in the 3rd to get the scoring started, and he was one of five members of the Team USA lineup to record a multi-hit game. Team USA added another run in the 8th, and when David Robertson got Carlos Correa to send a ground ball to third for the game’s final out, members of the American squad streamed from the dugout and bullpen to join their teammates on the field in celebrating their country’s first WBC title.
In the early days of this tournament much was made of the lack of American interest, defined by both the decision of most marquee players to pass up the chance to play and the focus of most fans on the familiar rituals of spring training. To be sure, the World Baseball Classic will always be a diversion from the main event of another major league season.
But Team USA played its eight games before an average crowd of more than 32,000, a number slightly higher than the average attendance at a big league game last season. For the first time total WBC attendance topped one million, and Wednesday night Dodger Stadium was filled with more than 51,000 boisterous fans. As for the American players who did take part, they were all determined to achieve what three previous U.S. teams had not. As first baseman Eric Hosmer said after the game, “We had a goal — to put the U.S.A. on top of the baseball world where it belongs, and we did exactly that.” Indeed they did, for after the fairy tale run of Team Israel came to an end, after the dominance of the Dominican Republic squad was stopped, and even in the face of the unbridled exuberance of Team Puerto Rico, it was Team USA that won three straight elimination games against favored opponents, earning the right to that final celebration on the Dodger Stadium infield.