MIAMI — Trea Turner had faced Venezuelan right-hander Silvino Bracho exactly once in her career.
“Go watch the climax of the at-bat,” he told me just before I interviewed him on FS1.
“Bad?” I asked.
“So bad,” Turner replied.
The at-bat game took place on September 26, 2016, in the ninth inning of a game in which Turner’s former team, the Nationals, were edged out by the Diamondbacks, 14-4. Bracho threw an 82 mph slider. Turner checked his momentum. His ground ball on the first was so weak that he never even ran.
Pretty bad – and Turner’s whole frame of reference when Bracho entered the quarterfinal of the World Baseball Classic on Saturday night with the bases loaded, none in the top of the eighth and Venezuela leading the United States, 7-5 .
Turner, the No. 9 hitter on the $300 million Team USA, took a fastball for the first strike. He committed another fastball foul for the second strike. At that time, he was 3 for 13 in the WBC, even though one of his hits was a homer. He was still looking for his swing, like he would in normal spring training. Trailing 0-2, he knew he had Mookie Betts and Mike Trout behind him.
Bracho has only made four major league appearances in the past four seasons. Venezuela manager Omar López needed him out after southpaw Jose Quijada charged the bases by walking Tim Anderson, allowing a bloop single from pinched hitter Pete Alonso and hitting JT Realmuto. Closest José Alvarado, López said, was unavailable for more than four outs.
Bracho threw a change to Turner, just over the heart of the plate. This time, Turner didn’t check his swing. Instead, he turned furiously on the pitch, chasing with a majestic one-handed finish. On a night of so much doubt, a night when reliever Daniel Bard suffered a frightening loss of control, helping turn a 5-2 lead into a 6-5 deficit, Turner hit the ultimate no-doubt , an indelible grand slam.
“I feel like I passed out,” Turner said.
He was not alone.
“I saw about 35 guys, including the coaches, kind of pass out,” USA team manager Mark DeRosa said.
Memories may be hazy for Turner, DeRosa and Co., but those who were aware will never forget what they saw. Turner bounded for first base, shaking with excitement, gesturing for dugout. Then, rounding the third with virtually the entire American team waiting at the plate to celebrate with him, similar to the Venezuelan and many other foreign teams.
Major league clubs are more reserved, emptying the dugout only for starts. But DeRosa, who played in Venezuela for Leones del Caracas during the 2000-01 offseason, knew Saturday night had to be different. The WBC was single elimination. And the sold-out crowd in Miami was certain to be pro-Venezuelan.
DeRosa told his players before the game to bring their passion, to match the energy of the Venezuelan team, “let go.” He said if an American player hits a home run, meet him at home plate. Nolan Arenado also spoke, delivering a similar message. Team USA would effectively be the road team, Arenado said. He would need to create his own energy.
2017 WBC American hero Adam Jones walked into the room after Arenado ended. Pump yourself up, he told the players. Be louder for your teammates than the crowd will be. Oh, and pump a single if you wish, because that’s what your opponent will do.
“We were a little more dead in pool games,” said catcher Realmuto. “But here it was like, they’re going to have so many fans behind them, we have to unite in our dugout and create as much energy as possible. Having that message before the game and knowing what to expect was important.
Jones wanted the American players to be “dynamic,” and that’s exactly what they were in the first set, knocking out Venezuelan starter Martín Pérez with five straight singles to open the game, taking a 3-0 lead. . Venezuelan Luis Arraez responded in the bottom half with the first of his two home runs, a two-run shot that provided the first indication that the night might be unusual, even by WBC standards.
Arraez, the AL batting champion last season, has never produced a two-home run game in the majors. Heck, he’s only hit 20 home runs in 850 pro games. But as Turner would later say, speaking of Team USA’s own comeback, “When you get punched in the mouth, you have to react.”
There would be more hits. Much more.
In the fifth, Kyle Tucker hit a home run to restore Team USA’s lead to three runs. Lance Lynn had started the first four races for the United States, giving up his only points at the Arraez circuit. DeRosa, after a day off, had a rested bullpen. And his first choice was Bard, who allowed four runs in Team USA’s pool loss to Mexico but bounced back with a scoreless inning against Colombia.
Bard, 37, has a history of control issues. In 2012, he developed “the thing,” an inability to command the strike zone, keeping him out of the majors from 2014 to 2020. His return to the Rockies led to a two-year, $19 million contract extension last July. But of 152 qualified relievers last season, he still had the 36th-highest walk rate.
Bard’s first sign of trouble on Saturday night was a five-length walk to Gleyber Torres. Andrés Giménez followed with a single from the field. Bard threw a wild pitch to get the runners going. Then came the appearance of the plate that will be the last fodder for WBC critics, who seem unaware that unfortunate injuries also happen in spring training games.
Jose Altuve was Bard’s third batter, so DeRosa couldn’t fire him at that time without violating the three-batter minimum. But based on Bard’s history, including his first outing in the tournament, it’s safe to say he should never have pitched. It can certainly be argued that DeRosa should have pulled it off after hitting Altuve in the right hand with a 96mph lead. Bard threw a second wild pitch and walked another. He was eventually charged with four points.
Why didn’t DeRosa start warming up another reliever the moment Bard threw his first walk? The manager said that under restrictions imposed by major league clubs, once a reliever gets up they have to pitch. Still, even with limited flexibility, DeRosa shouldn’t have risked a playoff game slipping away from him.
The Astros will provide more information on Altuve’s condition on Sunday, but he left the park with his thumb wrapped, and the initial concern is that the finger is broken. López, the Astros’ first baseman coach, said he was “very worried”, for Altuve, “deeply worried”. Venezuela took the lead after Altuve was hit. But Altuve’s injury was so disturbing, López said, “the whole dugout kind of died.”
Just as Edwin Díaz’s knee injury cast a shadow over Puerto Rico’s incredible upset against the Dominican Republic, Altuve’s injury tarnished what DeRosa called “one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. participated”. The American players, however, still buzzed as they left the park in disbelief at what they had been through. The crowd. The noise. Turner’s grand slam and Devin Williams and Ryan Pressly’s scoreless innings to preserve the win.
“(The Royals’) Brady Singer used to ask me what the playoffs were like,” said American reliever Adam Ottavino, who pitched eight different playoffs for four different clubs. “I was like, I don’t even know if they’re like that. It was the best atmosphere I’ve been in. It was so much fun to be a part of it, even though we would have lost it.
Realmuto, echoing Ottavino’s thoughts, even sent a subtle message to those who opted out. “I can’t believe anyone would rather stay in spring training than play in a game like this,” Realmuto said. “So much pride on the line. So much fun. It was clear to both teams just how much this game meant.
Yet for Team USA to successfully defend their WBC title, they will need to win two more matches that could be just as intense. The first will be Sunday night’s semi-final against Cuba, with Adam Wainwright starting against Roenis Elías. The second would be against the winner of the Mexico-Japan semi-final in Tuesday’s league match.
DeRosa used six relievers against Venezuela, but Kendall Graveman and Aaron Loup didn’t pitch. Nick Martinez left the team on Saturday to join 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 retained to start an eventual Finals.
As crazy as it sounds, the regular season is shaping up to be a disappointment. The competition in the WBC is pure. The atmosphere in Miami is unique. The roof is closed at LoanDepot Park, making the blaring music and roaring fans even louder. Kyle Schwarber said he had never been in a game in March with such electricity. Pressly added: “It almost makes me want to go play winter ball and see how rowdy these fans are getting.”
It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating. And it’s not finished yet.
(Top photo: Eric Espada/Getty Images)