PHOENIX — The World Baseball Classic is forever caught between what it is and what it should be. As entertainment — especially in person — it absolutely delivers. As a true test of international baseball supremacy, maybe not.
For that you could blame the priorities of major league owners, players and American fans, who are conditioned to care more about their team’s fortunes than about proving a point to their neighbors. The summer, not spring training, would clearly be the best time for a worldwide baseball tournament, but nobody wants to pause the season.
Nor should they, really. Baseball is an everyday companion; for true die-hards, even the All-Star break can seem too long to wait for their team’s next game. So the W.B.C., which dates only to 2006, is a March event, and that means the sport’s most delicate commodity — pitchers’ throwing arms — must be rigidly protected.
“We knew what we signed up for,” said Tim Anderson, the Chicago White Sox shortstop, after Mexico humbled the United States, 11-5, at Chase Field on Sunday night. “Even the pitchers knew what they signed up for. Being a position player, you understand the process, so you can’t really complain about anything.”
For the U.S., which beat Britain on Saturday and faces Canada on Monday night, the tournament has now taken on a sudden, unsettling urgency. A loss to Canada would give the U.S. a tight path to the next round in Miami: beat Colombia on Wednesday, then hope to win a three-way tiebreaker — with Colombia involved — for the second of two berths from this pool.
Joey Meneses of the Washington Nationals had a huge game on Monday, going 3 for 5 with two home runs and five R.B.I.Credit…Zachary Bondurant/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
Anderson said he would not pore over the possibilities; with a roster like this, he added, there is no reason to worry. Nick Martinez, a San Diego Padres right-hander who started on Sunday, said the unusual format was exciting.
“You can play the victim to it or you can kind of turn it into your favor,” Martinez said. “Today, Mexico definitely turned it into their favor.”
Martinez allowed a two-run homer in the first to Joey Meneses, a Washington Nationals slugger who singled and scored in the third and homered again in the fourth off Brady Singer of the Kansas City Royals. Meneses flipped his bat skyward after that blast, and the party was on for Mexico, whose fans rocked the Diamondbacks’ cavernous ballpark, 47,534 strong.
“Definitely that playoff atmosphere — I like that,” said Martinez, who thrived for San Diego last October. “I like pitching with that kind of energy and tempo.”
Yet for all the talk about postseason vibes, the W.B.C. sometimes feels more like an All-Star Game, with the manager following a script for who to use and how to handle each player. In the All-Star Game, the reasons are sentiment and good will. In the W.B.C., the script is part of Manager Mark DeRosa’s obligation to each player’s team.
DeRosa, a convivial analyst for MLB Network, played 16 seasons as a major league infielder but has never managed. His first assignment is tricky: Win, of course, but don’t disrupt players’ preparation for the long season.
That often-contradictory mandate played out in full, excruciating view on Sunday. DeRosa kept Singer in for 53 pitches, even as the game slipped away, to build up his pitch count for the Royals. He used one reliever, Colorado’s Daniel Bard, for 33 pitches as he tried to nurse Bard through the eighth inning. Yet two others (Kendall Graveman of the White Sox and Devin Williams of Milwaukee) threw just six pitches combined, because they cannot work in multiple innings.
“You guys are seeing it play out, right?” DeRosa said at his postgame news conference. “There’s a lot of guys that mean a lot to these big league ball clubs and their seasons. I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize them.”
Chase Field in Arizona was packed with Mexico fans on Sunday.Credit…Christian Petersen/Getty Images
All W.B.C. managers face that challenge; just because starter Patrick Sandoval of the Los Angeles Angels looked sharp on Sunday, Mexico’s manager, Benji Gil, could not push him past three innings. The bigger issue for DeRosa might be the difference in quality between the staff he has and the fantasy staff that could be here.
Any pitcher can have a bad day. But these guys have them less often than most: Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Max Fried, Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Logan Webb, Zac Gallen, Gerrit Cole, Alek Manoah, Shane McClanahan, Dylan Cease, Shane Bieber, Jacob deGrom, Robbie Ray … you get the idea. All of those premier U.S. pitchers remained with their teams this spring training.
Nobody blames them, but everybody feels their absence, DeRosa especially.
“The game begins and ends on the mound — it always has and it always will,” he said last week, before a U.S. exhibition against the San Francisco Giants. “So I understand the trepidation of clubs wanting to give their top arms to us. But I think if this W.B.C. is going to go where it needs to go, that will eventually have to loosen a little bit.”
Then again, look around: Julio Urías is pitching for Mexico, Sandy Alcantara for the Dominican Republic, Shohei Ohtani for Japan. Their decisions, perhaps, reflect the importance of the W.B.C. to their countries.
The players on the U.S. team — whose lineup is stacked, even without the Yankees’ Aaron Judge — surely feel the same kind of national pride. Yet deep down, the players know the deal. The push to the World Series, awkward name and all, still matters most. The fifth edition of the W.B.C. is a treat, but it’s really just a supercharged spring training.
“I don’t think it’s the same, personally,” said Trea Turner, the Philadelphia Phillies’ shortstop, comparing the W.B.C. to the playoffs. “The energy is higher, I guess, is the only similarity to me. But it’s totally different.
“You play six, seven months to play in a postseason game. Now it’s just a sprint. You’re in there and you’re wearing a different jersey and you have guys from different teams, you’re trying to come together. There’s such a unique experience. That’s what makes it so fun and so appealing to fans, and to us as well.”
For the U.S. players, the fun could end much quicker than any of them expected.