Saturday, March 16, 2013

And just like that, it's all over for Team USA

Just a few days ago, you would have thought that Team USA was well on their way to the championship round by defeating Puerto Rico to open Round 2 play.

After Friday night, it's back to the drawing board for the third time in as many WBC tournaments.

Nelson Figueroa dominated the Americans for six innings, and three big runs in the sixth got Puerto Rico all the runs they would need as they advanced to the semifinals, 4-3.  The US ends their WBC run with an even 3-3 record.

Puerto Rico opened the scoring right away, as they got one on Ryan Vogelsong in the first.  Angel Pagan led off the game by singling to center.  With two outs, Yadier (not Bengie, as Harold Reynolds kept calling him) Molina also singled, and Pagan scored on Mike Aviles's RBI single.

The US couldn't do a lick at the plate through five innings.  Here's their offensive "highlights": Brandon Phillips reached first on an error in the first (to which Ryan Braun grounded into the dreaded inning ending DP), Ben Zobrist walked in the second, and Phillps singled in the fourth.  They looked lifeless, and sure as heck played like it.

The sixth is when Puerto Rico busted it open, and when Joe Torre made his first of two questionable decisions on the night.  Vogelsong was lifted with Carlos Beltran on first from a walk and two outs.  That was a bit odd because he was only at 73 pitches, and you're allowed 80.  Vinnie Pastano was called upon instead, and he immediately loaded the bases on a single to Aviles and walk to an ice cold Alex Rios.

Another walk to Carlos Rivera made the score 2-0.  Pestano then failed to get his fourth straight batter out when Andy Gonzalez ripped an RBI double to left, making it 4-0.  That was it for Pestano, as Jeremy Affeldt had to get the final out.

It took until the seventh before the US showed any sign of life whatsoever.  For the first time in a whopping 15 innings, they got an extra-base hit on a triple by Joe Mauer.  He scored on Giancarlo Stanton's RBI single.  With two men on and Jose De La Torre pitching, Adam Jones struck out looking with a full count on another terrible strike three call.  But then again, poor umpiring in this tournament should no longer be a surprise, and it's not.

The eighth inning brought the Americans within one, but it also brought the second questionable Torre decision.  Jimmy Rollins and Phillips each singled with one out.  Braun stroked an RBI double, and it was 4-2.  Mauer took another walk to load the bases, and after Stanton popped up for two down, Zobrist forced in a run on a walk, and it was suddenly a one-run game.

Here's where Torre dropped the ball, quite frankly.  Eric Hosmer was due up, so Puerto Rico manager Tony Pena called upon lefty J.C. Romero.  Rather than pinch-hitting for Hosmer, who's had a decent WBC but only hit .200, Torre let him stay in there.  The result?  A simple groundout to second.

You could say the air was sucked out of the Americans, as they went down 1-2-3 to end the game.

First thing's first, let's give plenty of credit to Puerto Rico.  They fought back against Italy on Wednesday, and did the same in this one after losing 7-1 to the US on Tuesday.  Figueroa was fantastic, as was Romero getting the final four outs.

But, it's hard not to wonder what might have been had Torre made some different calls during the game.  Vogelsong started off the game a little shaky, but more than settled down.  Why not leave him in to pitch to right-handed Aviles and possibly Rios in the sixth?  He certainly looked ready for it.  Pestano is normally a very good reliever, so nothing against him, but it clearly wasn't the right call.

Then there's the Hosmer at-bat in the eighth.  That's a spot where Torre could've turned to Jonathan Lucroy, who's a career .325 hitter against lefties, including an incredible .400 last season.  Then he could've stayed in to catch while Mauer moved to first.  Seems pretty logical to me.  Instead, Hosmer grounded out, and that was that.

Look, I'm in no way trying to diminish the great career of Torre, as I very much enjoyed his three years managing my Dodgers.  But I have to be honest here, and I didn't like the way he managed this game at all.  Of course, not having a great hitter like David Wright didn't do him any favors, either.  It was just a bad night all around, I guess.

The final four is now set, as Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Netherlands, and Japan will look to earn international bragging rights.  As for the US, it's back to trying to figure this thing out for 2017.  Will they try to convince younger stars they have to play?  Will they try to get the guys who commit some sort of extended Spring Training so they're more in game shape?  Or will it be status quo?

I guess we all have four years to think about it.

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