Team USA cares about the WBC, even if people in the US don't

·MLB columnist

MIAMI – Around the time Nolan Arenado’s face bounced off the first-base bag at Marlins Park, the entirety of the Colorado Rockies’ organization sucked down a deep, horrified breath. Here was general manager Jeff Bridich’s franchise player, the star that new manager Bud Black gets to pencil in to his lineup’s three hole, not just playing in the World Baseball Classic but playing like it was October instead of March. After the slider he swung at for strike three skated between the catcher’s legs, Arenado could’ve simply sprinted to first base. Of course, that would’ve betrayed who he is and what Team USA means to him. And that left him ready to break a cardinal safety rule: never dive into first base.

“I knew it was going to be close, so I just did it,” Arenado said. “I would like to apologize to the Rockies and tell Jeff Bridich and Bud Black that I’m sorry. The energy of the game got to me. My instincts took over. I’m trying to win, man.”

There’s this perception that the WBC, in its fourth incarnation, means less to the United States than it does to other countries – and when it comes to the fan bases around the world that go rabid for it compared to the Americans who see it as a milquetoast exhibition, well, yeah, that’s fair. Nolan Arenado, Nolan Arenado’s face and Nolan Arenado’s teammates, however, want to make clear: They care. They cared enough Friday night not to fold when a scrappy team from Colombia backed them into a corner, cared enough to yell and scream and fist-pump big strikeouts, cared enough that when Adam Jones laced a two-out single in the bottom of the 10th inning for a 3-2 victory, the team spilled out of the third-base dugout and moshed and emptied a Gatorade jug on Jones, checking off all the requisite walk-off tropes.

And because these are athletes at their peak, that is to be anticipated, sure. With three WBC failures in the United States’ rearview, though, and nearly all of the greatest American players choosing to skip the tournament, there is a built-in double barrel of motivation beyond the typical desire for excellence so common among all players – a craving for the wild patriotism expected at Saturday’s must-see game against the Dominican Republic to skew more American than less.

“I want to win everything,” Arenado said. “And represent our country right. I’m not gonna lie: There were a lot of Colombians there. And there are going to be a lot of Dominicans there [Saturday]. But this is America. We’re wearing the United States on the front of our jersey, and we want to represent it the right way.”

Arenado’s way was to dirty up the jersey. For the first 5 2/3 innings Friday, Jose Quintana, the indomitable Chicago White Sox starter and apple of every contender’s trade-market eye, had no-hit Team USA while three straight doubles in the fifth inning staked him a 2-0 lead. Then Brandon Crawford broke up the party with a single, and the first-round pitch limit of 65 sent Quintana to the bench. Ian Kinsler singled off reliever William Cuevas, Adam Jones doubled Crawford in and Arenado’s dive allowed Kinsler to score.

From there, tension asphyxiated the crowd of 22,580, which vacillated between Colombian and American joy or fright depending on the inning and situation. While it wasn’t exactly a crisply played game, the understanding that one mistake could decide it was palpable. Said 72-year-old American manager Jim Leyland, who retired after the 2013 season: “Now you know why I’m not managing anymore.”

The decisions, the situations, the pressure: They are not manufactured. The WBC itself may be, dreamt up as a way for Major League Baseball to control its own international product, particularly as the Olympic movement dumped baseball after years of treating it as an extra appendage it never wanted. And parts of the action do feel contrived. American starter Chris Archer cruised through four innings on 41 pitches before leaving the game. Why? His team, the Tampa Bay Rays, gave him their blessing only if he agreed to limit his first start to four innings or 60 pitches, whichever came first.

Team USA
Team USA cares about the World Baseball Classic, even if the fans don’t. (Getty Images)

Still, these games manage to generate a genuine excitement in spite of their limitations, and there is something to be said for that. Spring training games, by and large, are fetid piles of blah. To know every four years will deliver March games with gravitas is something worth celebrating. The American players certainly do.

“Honestly, I got chill bumps four or five times before the game and just like kind of thinking to myself, ‘Is this real?’ ” Archer said. “Wearing USA across my chest and representing for the country and most importantly the look on my parents’ face when I was walking in, just knowing what they did for me growing up, it’s like the American story: Anything’s possible. There’s so many opportunities here, and I’m glad we fought until the end and demonstrated what USA is all about.”

American relievers wound their ways out of jams. Pat Neshek inherited a two-on, one-out situation in the seventh and watched Arenado nab a line drive and throw to first for the double play. He put two more on in the ninth, only to strike out Jesus Valdez and whirl off the mound with both arms pumping. And with the 11th inning beckoning – along with the WBC rule that mandates teams start it with runners on first and second – the U.S. dodged a dreadful loss.

With one out, Christian Yelich and Crawford drew back-to-back walks. They moved up on a Kinsler groundout. And after taking a fastball strike and fouling off three more heaters from Guillermo Moscoso, Jones dropped a split-fingered fastball in front of center fielder Tito Polo to score Yelich.

“What it says across our chest is what we’re about,” Jones said. “Individually, obviously we do our own special things, but right now we’re taking a back seat to our own egos and doing what we have to do for Team USA. Right now this is who we play for, so we’re trying to do anything and anything possible just to win the game. And it showed throughout the game, we are willing to sacrifice our on personal betterments for the greater good.”

In Arenado’s case, that was his face. He lucked out. No broken bones. No strained ligaments. Just a promise to himself: “I can’t do that ever again. That was bad.”

Or so he says. Truth is, if faced with that situation again – if he felt like his only way to get that base was to dive – instinct would take over and Nolan Arenado would do it again, no matter how bad he knows it is. Maybe the WBC still doesn’t mean much to people in the United States, even to some hardcore fans, but it’s foolish to question those wearing the jersey. If that wasn’t obvious before Friday, it is now.