Marcus Stroman’s choice puts United States’ WBC hopes in his hands

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES – The pitcher starting for the United States in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic originally intended to play for Team USA’s opponent, Puerto Rico.

In Sept. 2013, Blue Jays right-hander Marcus Stroman tweeted,

But Stroman, 25, changed his mind, announcing on Dec. 3 that he would play for Team USA rather than Puerto Rico, where his mother, Adlin Auffant, was born.

Puerto Rican fans – not all, but some – have been giving it to Stroman and his mother since.

“I know a lot of people have been saying bad things to her, going through the process, on social media,” Stroman said after Team USA’s 2-1 victory over Japan in Tuesday’s semifinal.

“That’s my mother. I stand by her always. She supports me through everything. I don’t respect some of the comments that were made toward my mother.”

Will that motivate him Wednesday?

Stroman looked me straight in the eye, his game face already in place.

“I’m really excited to pitch,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”

The U.S.-Puerto Rico final will mark a fitting end to the WBC, with Stroman at the center of not one but two dramatic sub-plots as Team USA plays in the championship game for the first time.

USA manager Jim Leyland. Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Team USA manager Jim Leyland had a choice to bring back right-hander Chris Archer, who returned to the Rays rather than pitch in the last round, and piggy-back him with Stroman in the final; Wednesday also is Archer’s day to pitch, and he will start for the Rays in a Grapefruit League exhibition.

But Leyland, who explained at length Monday that he had no issue with Archer, has made a point throughout the tournament of standing behind his players, almost to a fault.

That goes for players who remained with the team, such as Tuesday’s starter, Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark, and also players who are struggling, such as Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, who went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Japan and is 3-for-26 in the tournament.

Roark, who previously had worked only 1 1/3 innings in the WBC, pitched four shutout innings against Japan, allowing two singles and a walk after hitting the first batter of the game.

“We haven’t changed anything,” Leyland said. “Tanner Roark was loyal to us. We were loyal to him. He pitched tonight. He did pretty good, didn’t he?

“It’s amazing when you believe in people what happens a lot of times. I know a lot of people were questioning that guy starting tonight. I know they were. They didn’t say anything, but they were probably questioning it. But a lot of times when you have confidence in somebody, they pay you back.”

Thus, Leyland said he again will stick with the same lineup for the championship game except at catcher, where it’s Jonathan Lucroy’s turn in his rotation with Buster Posey.

There will be no Paul Goldschmidt, who has only 13 at-bats, and no Daniel Murphy, who has only six.

Andrew McCutchen (right) celebrates with Christian Yelich after beating Japan  Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Might Leyland juggle the batting order and drop Arenado out of the cleanup spot?

“I’ll look at it,” Leyland said. “I haven’t made that decision yet.”

Question Leyland if you must, but no previous U.S. manager advanced this far in the tournament – not Buck Martinez in 2006, not Davey Johnson in ‘09, not Joe Torre in ‘13.

This is how Leyland manages. This is how he always managed. He believes in his guys. They believe in him. And right now, Stroman is one of his guys.

“He deserves the ball,” Leyland said. “He’s going to get it.”

Stroman also started Team USA’s second-round game against Puerto Rico, demonstrating his resilience in a 6-5 loss last Friday at Petco Park in San Diego.

Puerto Rico’s first six hitters produced singles against Stroman that night, helping their team build a 4-0 lead. But Stroman recovered to hold the next 14 batters hitless and wound up lasting 4 2/3 innings.

Is that rocky first inning still on his mind?

“Not at all,” Stroman said. “The next inning, it was out of my mind. I was able to keep everything in perspective, keep things moving forward. I haven’t thought about that since.”

He has, however, thought about his mother.

The day after Stroman’s start against Puerto Rico, his mother sent out this tweet:

The next day, Stroman replied:

For Stroman, a native of Medford, N.Y., the decision to pitch for the U.S. hardly was outlandish – he played for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team in 2011. Still, when he announced his choice for the WBC, he tweeted, “Very difficult decision. Sorry momma…”

Not that his mother objected; Stroman said she actually was fine with him pitching for Team USA instead of Puerto Rico.

“One hundred percent,” he said. “She wanted me to pitch for the USA. She’s cool with it.”

In truth, fans of both the U.S. and Puerto Rico should be proud of Stroman.

He used his time rehabilitating from major knee surgery to complete his bachelor’s degree in sociology at Duke University, graduating in May.

And he beat the odds just to reach the majors, standing only 5-foot-8 and going by the motto, “Height Doesn’t Measure Heart.”

Now comes one of the biggest moments of his career.

He originally planned to play for Team Puerto Rico. Instead, he will pitch against it for the WBC title.

“I can’t wait,” Stroman said. “I can’t wait to get out there.”

Team Japan watches its hopes fade in the ninth inning. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports