PHOENIX – Two shadows cast themselves over Team USA on Sunday afternoon. The first peeked through the open roof at Chase Field and bathed home plate in darkness, making the already-trying task of picking up a 95-mph pitch from 60 feet away that much more vexing. Even worse was the other, impossible to see but easy to sense: The United States, where baseball was invented, was about to bomb out of the World Baseball Classic, and the lasting pall would be far greater than anything the clouds and sun ever could muster.
In order to vanquish the second, the U.S. needed to conquer the first, and it finally did after playing from behind against Canada in a win-or-go-home game most of the afternoon. Adam Jones ripped a go-ahead two-run double in the eighth inning, Eric Hosmer followed with a bases-clearing three-run double in the ninth and Team USA, at one point just six outs from finishing last in the WBC's Pool D, finished atop its group's standings and advanced to the next round in Miami with a 9-4 victory.
Despite Joe Torre managing as though the analytical breakthroughs of the last 20 years never happened – bunting three times with a lineup of All-Stars, shrugging off matchup-relief situations, walking a career-long scrub to load the bases with a new reliever coming in and keeping the player who led the major leagues in slugging percentage last year on the bench all game despite struggling for runs over the first seven innings – Team USA turned into Team USA over the final two innings, dropping seven runs and joining Italy, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico in Miami.
The prospect of a loss unleashing doomsday scenarios – the U.S. having to qualify for the 2017 WBC, or the tournament changing qualification rules to spare Team USA from such humiliation – was palpable until Jones, Baltimore's standout center fielder, fought off the abating shadows to gap a Jim Henderson slider. Canada's eighth-inning rally ended with the bases loaded, and four ninth-inning insurance runs saved the U.S. from its own deficiencies.
"I would've been embarrassed," second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "USA – this is where baseball started. We've got to represent our country. And if we would've lost, we didn't do our job."
By doing their duty, the players rescued Torre from a rightful filleting after turning a lineup of mashers into practitioners of small-ball tiddlywinks. With runners on first and second and no outs in the second inning, he bunted Jones – 2012 numbers: .287/.334/.505 – and didn't score. Same scenario in the fourth and once again, a bunt with Ben Zobrist – 2012 numbers: .270/.377/.471 – went for a hit only because Canada's third baseman, Taylor Green, isn't an altogether competent third baseman. And the worst was in the eighth, when, down a run, Torre called for Zobrist to bunt one more time – and he popped out to the catcher.
Jones, the next hitter, also saved Torre from having to explain how he can say this – "We really don't have a soft spot in that lineup" – and then manage like he has a lineup of nine David Ecksteins.
Already Torre finds himself handicapped by his allegiance to the teams lending their players to Team USA. Because the interest in playing for the U.S. was disappointingly limited, Torre offered promises to teams on how he would use their players. So Giancarlo Stanton, he of the .608 slugging percentage, spent Sunday on the bench while Shane Victorino, he of the sub-.400 slugging percentage, logged four at-bats.
And to face Canada's almost entirely left-handed lineup in the seventh and eighth innings, Torre called on Heath Bell, David Hernandez and Steve Cishek. All are right-handers. All needed to throw. So damn the situation and the matchup – damn that Joey Votto's OPS is 103 points higher against righties than lefties over his career, Justin Morneau's 176 points and Michael Saunders' 43 points, and that Hernandez's is 43 points and Cishek's 181 points while Bell's is even – and go ahead with what their clubs would want instead of what's best for the team.
"The team over there, Canada: They don't know if you're left-handed or right-handed," Torre said. "They whack the hell out of the ball. … So I didn't think that that was a priority to match-up necessarily."
[Related: Mexico-Canada brawl is WBC's classic moment]
One of Torre's greatest strengths is explaining the rationale behind certain decisions. None of his elucidation Sunday passed muster. Intentionally walking Pete Orr, a lifetime .259/.289/.332 hitter, to load the bases with Cishek then facing his first hitter in the eighth was strategically dreadful. Cishek is far from a control artist, and the possibility of a force at any base wasn't worth the trade-off of a bases-loaded walk or hit by pitch.
Cishek escaped, ostensibly vindicating Torre like Victorino did in the eighth with a run-scoring single. It didn't, of course, mitigate his stubborn insistence to small-ball conventions. If Torre is going to be a slave to that style of play, actively stomping on Team USA's inherent superiority like it's a smoldering cigarette butt, moving past Miami to San Francisco will take far more than talent.
Unless Torre is trying to make up for lost moves after spending the last two years in Major League Baseball's front office, he'll soon understand: Best to let this team play. Beyond questionable starting pitching – the U.S. picks up Gio Gonzalez to start its first game in Miami on Tuesday – this is a deep, strong, dangerous team. Its lineup frightens. Its baserunning is top-notch. Among David Wright, Jones and Phillips, whose diving stop of an Adam Loewen shot in the eighth inning squelched Canada's rally, the U.S. has flashed elite gloves across the diamond.
In the first two WBCs, the U.S. parlayed its talent into a pair of disappointing finishes. It still hasn't made a final, let alone won the tournament, which from the first moment Torre met with the Americans was the stated goal. Not just Miami. Not just San Francisco for the semifinals and finals. The whole damn thing.
After disappointment in their first game against Mexico, the players did their part. Now it's Torre's turn. There is no better motivator, no stronger presence, no person in the game with more gravitas. If he and the other suits at MLB want fans to take the WBC seriously, he must act like he's their manager, not their handler when they're on loan. Until he exerts such authority, the WBC better represents Little League, with participation a necessity, than a tournament to determine international superiority.
No other manager is taking such precautions. And if the players on Team USA really want to win the WBC – and they do – they'll understand the best must play at all times. If that means taking extra batting practice or throwing a simulated game in lieu of participating in the real thing, so be it. Torre has spent all week talking about how this is a team. He should treat it like one.
In doing so, he'll best fulfill his duty: manage Team USA to a victory. It is eminently capable of one and showed so by sloughing off his mistakes Sunday. Now it's Joe Torre's turn to thrive. There's a shadow waiting to cast itself over him otherwise.
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