MIAMI – Trea Turner had faced Venezuelan right-hander Silvino Bracho exactly once in his career.
“Look at the highlight of the at bat,” he told me just before I interviewed him on FS1.
“Bad?” I have asked.
“So bad,” Turner replied.
The at bat came on September 26, 2016, in the ninth inning of a game in which Turner’s former team, the Nationals, trailed 14–4 against the Diamondbacks. Bracho threw an 82 mph slider. Turner checked his swing. His groundball to first was so weak he didn’t even run.
Pretty bad – and Turner’s entire frame of reference as Bracho entered the quarterfinals of the World Baseball Classic on Saturday-evening with the bases loaded, none out in the top of the eighth and Venezuela leading the United States 7-5.
Turner, Team USA’s $300 million number 9 batter, took a fastball for strike one. He fouled another fastball before strike two. At the time, he was going 3-for-13 in the WBC, though one of his hits was a homer. He was still looking for his swing, just like normal spring training. Trailing 0-2, he knew he had Mookie Betts and Mike Trout behind him.
Bracho made only four major league appearances in the past four seasons. Venezuelan manager Omar López needed him to get out after lefthander Jose Quijada loaded the bases by walking Tim Anderson, giving up a bloop single by pinch-hitter Pete Alonso and hitting JT Realmuto. Closer José Alvarado, according to López, was not available for more than four outs.
Bracho threw Turner a substitution straight over the center of the plate. This time Turner didn’t control his swing. Instead, he turned furiously on the field, followed by a majestic one-handed finish. On a night of so many doubts, a night when reliever Daniel Bard fearfully lost control and helped turn a 5-2 lead into a 6-5 deficit, Turner hit the ultimate doubter, an indelible grand slam.
“I feel like I blacked out,” Turner said.
He was not alone.
“I saw about 35 guys, including the coaches, kind of black out,” said Team USA manager Mark DeRosa.
The memories may be hazy for Turner, DeRosa and Co., but those who were conscious will never forget what they saw. Turner skips to first base, trembling with excitement, gesturing toward the dugout. He then finished in third place while virtually all of Team USA waited at home plate to celebrate with him, in the same manner as the Venezuelan and many other foreign teams.
Major league clubs are more reserved and only clear the dugout for walkoffs. But DeRosa, who played Venezuela for Leones del Caracas in the 2000-2001 off-season, knew Saturday night had to be different. The WBC was down to a single elimination. And the sold-out crowd in Miami was definitely pro-Venezuelan.
DeRosa told his players before the game to bring their passion, match Team Venezuela’s energy, “let go”. He said that if an American player hits a home run, he can be seen at home plate. Nolan Arenado also spoke and conveyed a similar message. Team USA would effectively be the road team, Arenado said. It should create its own energy.
Adam Jones, American hero of the WBC 2017, entered the room after Arenado finished. Pump yourself up, he told the players. Be louder to your teammates than the crowd will be. Oh, and pump a single if you want, because that’s what your opponent will do.
“We were a little bit more dead in the pool games,” catcher Realmuto said. “But here it was like they would have so many fans behind them, we have to work together in our dugout and create as much energy as possible. It was important to have that message before the game and to know what to expect.
Jones wanted the American players to be “dynamic”, and they were just that in the first inning, knocking out Venezuelan starter Martín Pérez with five consecutive hits to open the game and take a 3-0 lead. to take. Venezuela’s Luis Arraez responded in the second half with the first of his two home runs, a two-run shot that provided the first indication that the night could be unusual, even by WBC standards.
Arraez, the AL batting champion last season, has never produced a two-homer game in the majors. Heck, he’s only hit 20 home runs in 850 professional games. But as Turner would later put it, speaking of Team USA’s own comeback, “When you get punched in the mouth, you have to react.”
There would be more blows. Much more.
In the fifth, Kyle Tucker homered to restore Team USA’s lead to three runs. Lance Lynn had pitched the first four innings for the US and gave up his lone runs on Arraez’ homer. DeRosa had a rested bullpen after a day off. And his first pick was Bard, who had allowed four runs in Team USA’s loss to Mexico in pool play, but recovered with a scoreless inning against Colombia.
Bard, 37, has a history of control problems. In 2012, he developed “the thing,” an inability to control the strike zone that kept him out of the majors from 2014 to 2020. His comeback with the Rockies led to a two-year, $19 million contract extension last July. But out of 152 qualified relievers last season, he still had the 36th highest number of walks.
Bard’s first sign of trouble Saturday night was a five-pitch opening walk to Gleyber Torres. Andrés Giménez followed with an infield single. Bard threw a wild pitch to advance the runners. Then came the plate appearance that will be the latest fodder for critics of the WBC, who seem to ignore the fact that unfortunate injuries happen in spring training games.
Jose Altuve was Bard’s third batter, so DeRosa couldn’t retire him at the time without breaking the three-batter minimum. But based on Bard’s history, including his first appearance in the tournament, it’s fair to say that he should never have pitched. It can certainly be argued that DeRosa should have removed him after hitting Altuve in the right hand with a 96 mph sinker. Bard then threw a second runscoring wild pitch and walked again. He was eventually charged with four runs.
Why didn’t DeRosa start warming up another reliever when Bard issued his first walk? The manager said that under the restrictions imposed by major league clubs, as soon as a reliever gets up, he must pitch. But even with limited flexibility, DeRosa shouldn’t have risked an elimination match slip.
The Astros will provide more information on Altuve’s condition on Sunday, but he left the park with his thumb wrapped and initial fears are that the finger is broken. López, the Astros’ first base coach, said he was “deeply concerned” about Altuve, “deeply concerned.” Venezuela took the lead after Altuve was hit. But Altuve’s injury was so troubling, López said, “the whole dugout sort of died.”
Just as Edwin Díaz’s freakish knee injury cast a shadow over Puerto Rico’s stunning upset of the Dominican Republic, Altuve’s injury took some of the shine off what DeRosa called “one of the best games I’ve been a part of”. However, the American players were still buzzing as they left the park, incredulous at what they had experienced. Public. The sound. Turner’s grand slam and Devin Williams and Ryan Pressly’s scoreless innings to preserve the win.
“(The Royals’) Brady Singer asked me how the playoffs are,” said American reliever Adam Ottavino, who has pitched in eight different postseason-series for four different clubs. “I was like, I don’t even know if they are like that. That was the best atmosphere I’ve been in. It was just so much fun to be a part of it even if we would have lost it.
Realmuto, following Ottavino’s thoughts, even sent a subtle message to those who chose not to participate. “I can’t believe anyone would rather stay in spring training than play in such a game,” said Realmuto. “So much pride in the line. So much fun. It was clear to both teams how much that game meant.”
But if Team USA is to successfully defend its WBC title, it needs to win two more games that might be just as intense. The first is Sunday night’s semi-final against Cuba, with Adam Wainwright starting against Roenis Elías. The second would be against the semifinal winner between Mexico and Japan in Tuesday’s championship game.
DeRosa used six relievers against Venezuela, but Kendall Graveman and Aaron Loup didn’t pitch. Nick Martinez left the team on Saturday to rejoin the Padres, but Singer, Kyle Freeland and Merrill Kelly are among the starters who should be available in relief against Cuba, assuming Miles Mikolas is held back to face a potential final. to start.
Crazy as it sounds, the regular season looms like a letdown. The competition in the WBC is pure. The atmosphere in Miami is unique. At loanDepot Park, the roof is closed, making the blaring music and roaring fans sound even louder. Kyle Schwarber said he had never entered a competition in March with such energy. Pressly added, “It almost makes me want to go play the winter ball and see how rowdy these fans get.”
It is tiring. It’s exciting. And it’s not over yet.
(Top photo: Eric Espada/Getty Images)