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LOS ANGELES – Maybe you hadn’t given a lot of thought to Pat Neshek, the journeyman reliever whose appearances here have been weighty, if quite brief, and whose right-handed delivery is a hiccup-y sidearm ballet.
“Yeah, I got called really late,” he said of his place on the pitching staff for Team USA. “I think a lot of guys musta said no.”
He grinned. The U.S. will play for the World Baseball Classic championship Wednesday night against the firebrands of Puerto Rico, undefeated darlings, flag-wavers and bottle-blondes of the tournament. Twenty-four hours after Puerto Rico beat the Netherlands at Dodger Stadium, the U.S. knocked off previously undefeated Japan, 2-1, with an eighth-inning run that was followed by the most critical pitch for the Americans of the past two weeks.
It was a changeup. Neshek threw it at, oh, 69 or 70 miles an hour. Japan’s cleanup hitter – Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh, for whom they sang songs from the left-field bleachers – hit it. As the ball carried into the gloom toward right field, Japanese runners at first and second base sprinted ahead, and catcher Buster Posey turned his head abruptly, and people in the seats behind home plate stood with their hands in the air, and Neshek briefly considered his role here.
“I haven’t really had much room for failure,” he said. “If they get a hit I’m the worst player ever.”
Indeed, warming up in the bullpen during the eighth inning, Neshek had been told he’d face a right-handed hitter. So he threw mostly sliders, which is his best weapon against righties. Got it going pretty good, actually. Felt good. Summoned to the game with two out and those two runners on base, a one-run lead to guard, the championship game close, he arrived at the mound to a few instructions from Posey.
“I think changeups,” Posey said.
“I don’t really throw changeups to righties,” Neshek said.
Posey at that point notified Neshek the next batter – that being Tsutsugoh – hits left-handed. Left unsaid, he hits a lot of home runs, too.
Neshek nodded and thought, “OK, now I wish I’d thrown more changeups.”
The best part of the WBC, or if not the best a really intriguing part, has been the themes of unfamiliarity. Names that don’t register. Games that have gone un-scouted, or were scouted once and let be. The tournament is in that way, and at times, an incredibly pure contest. The night before, on this very field, Rick van den Hurk, Jair Jurrjens, Shairon Martis, Tom Stuifbergen and Loek van Mil very nearly pitched the Dutch past the Puerto Ricans. If nothing else, the tournament has been a reminder there are a lot of good ballplayers out there, and there’s maybe an inch or two that separates the good ballplayer who stretches his budget to pay the rent from the major leaguer, and the stuff that fills that inch or two may be luck or injury or a tick of bat speed or a secondary pitch that just won’t come or who knows. But it’s there. Or, more accurately, not there. And so they wait and hope and say yes to putting on a uniform and playing in the WBC, because maybe somebody will notice and, if not, it’ll be a good time.
Now, Neshek has pounded out a nice career in the major leagues. He was an All-Star once. He’s earned life-changing money, a couple times over. Then he stands on a pitcher’s mound in the third week of March, his heart thumping, feeling the weight of the nation stitched across his chest, staring in at the plate, wondering who the heck this guy is. And then where that ball’s gonna land.
“Baseball’s a game where you kinda have to have the tools to stick around,” he said. “Then if you have the tools you have to stick around for 162 games. A lot of guys can do it for a couple weeks. A couple months.”
So you may drag your finger down a roster of names. From Colombia, say. Or Israel. Or Italy. Even the Netherlands. Some of those names you know. Others, maybe not. And then you hold that roster up against the U.S., the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and you shade that with your own bias of who you know and what you know about the U.S. major leagues and, perhaps, wonder how all these games got so competitive.
Because there are good players who can do this, because the difference between your favorite player and a guy playing right field in, say, Mexico is barely noticeable to the eye. And, then, over three hours or two weeks, that guy might actually be better. That happens in hardly any other sports.
On the other hand, the two presumed best teams in the WBC – Puerto Rico and the U.S. – will also play the last game of the WBC. On the other, other hand, this is the fourth WBC and the U.S. has never before played for the title.
The bright and brassy commotions from the left-field bleachers lit an otherwise grayish Dodger Stadium, darkened by a heavy sky and puffs of misty drizzle. Fans backed away from the field, into rows protected from the elements by ledges overhead. Below them, the infield shined in patches where the dirt began to hold water.
Meanwhile, the tiny band played. There were trumpets and horns and drums. A whistle or two. Somehow, they filled the ballpark. Some of the musicians played from memory, others played with one hand while holding sheet music in the other. They belted out their odes to this guy or that, their heroes from Japan, while countrymen swinging flags of Japan sang along. It was part WBC, part high school football game, part juke joint.
There had not been a rainout at Dodger Stadium since 2000, and the old place gamely slogged through three hours of umbrellas, yellow slickers and the occasional hydroplaned grounder.
Andrew McCutchen singled home Christian Yelich with two out in the fourth inning. Yelich reached on a two-base error, when his hard grounder skipped off Japanese second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi and into right-center field.
The U.S. led, 1-0, until the sixth inning, when the right-handed-hitting Kikuchi, listed at 5-foot-7, 152 pounds, drove a fastball from Nate Jones over the right-field fence. Dodger Stadium in early spring does not yield many opposite-field home runs, and certainly not to many 152-pounders. Redemption’s a hell of a drug.
In the eighth, Brandon Crawford singled and Ian Kinsler slammed a double to left-center field. Crawford reached third base, only the third U.S. baserunner to do so. Adam Jones hit a two-hopper to Japan’s third baseman, Nobuhiro Matsuda. Crawford broke to the plate on contact. Even a decent throw and he was out by 15 feet. Instead, Matsuda dropped the grounder. It fell in front of him. Crawford scored. The U.S. led, 2-1.
Mark Melancon, the San Francisco Giants’ new closer and a fresh addition to manager Jim Leyland’s bullpen, got two out in the bottom of the eighth, but also left two runners for Neshek. When the count was 1-and-2, Neshek threw that changeup, the one he likes against lefties, and Tsutsugoh pulled it in the air. The music played. The crowd gasped.
“I really wasn’t worried,” Neshek said. “Then I saw people behind the plate stand up. I was like, ‘Wha…?'”
Tsutsugoh had put a good swing on a pitch he’d not seen before, against a pitcher he’d not seen before. But the ball had crept a few inches toward his hands, enough to take the sting off. McCutchen caught that ball in the middle of right field. Then he cast it over his head, backward, into the bleachers. In the dugout, Neshek caught Posey’s eye. He smiled. He raised his eyebrows.
“Yeah, yeah,” Neshek said, “it’s fun. We win tomorrow, it’s gonna be crazy.”
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