Remaining stars have US in title hunt

No Justin Verlander, no Clayton Kershaw, no David Price. No Mike Trout, no Buster Posey, no Prince Fielder, no Josh Hamilton. And still, the United States might be good enough to win the World Baseball Classic.

Such an outcome might not be best for the future of the WBC, lulling American major leaguers into a false sense of complacency, enabling everyone to think, “Hey, we can win without our best.”

You know what, though? The bigger the tournament gets, the more players will want to participate. And who knows? By 2017, baseball might have a new commissioner, one who applies more pressure than Bud Selig on clubs — and specifically managers and general managers — to commit more fully to the WBC.

Some might argue that a loss by the US in the semifinals or finals could produce a similar effect, spurring greater participation in ’17. On the other hand, the US loss to Japan in the ’09 semis didn’t create a rush among American players to sign up for the current WBC. And the US team is pretty darned good, anyway.

I’m not suggesting that the team, in the wake of Tuesday night’s 7-1 trouncing of Puerto Rico, is a lock to win the tournament. But at the very least, it should advance to the championship round in San Francisco next week.

The worst-case scenario for the United States in this modified double-elimination round is that it will lose its next game to the Dominican Republic on Thursday, forcing it into a must-win game on Friday against Italy or Puerto Rico, two teams it already has beaten by a combined score of 13-3.

Manager Joe Torre wouldn’t buy into such talk — “you have to remember, I’m the same manager that had a 3-0 lead on the Red Sox in ’04,” he joked. But third baseman David Wright seemed almost embarrassed by his five-RBI performance, citing the strength of the US offense.

Wright, batting between two left-handed hitters, Joe Mauer and Eric Hosmer, hit three times with the bases loaded following walks to Mauer. Puerto Rico tried to get through Wright with lefty Xavier Cedeno in the eighth inning. It was baseball checkmate: Cedeno threw Wright a tough slider, but Wright crushed it for a three-run double.

“I’m not lying when I say that hitting in this lineup is ridiculous,” Wright said. “I mean, you’ve got some of the best hitters in the game, and it creates a lot of matchups late in the game, like you saw.”

Torre actually batted Giancarlo Stanton eighth, and the choice was not illogical, particularly with the left-right-left rotation in the 4-5-6 spots. Adam Jones, who hit a two-run, go-ahead double with the US facing elimination against Canada on Sunday, batted seventh. Ben Zobrist, a switch-hitter who had an .848 OPS last season, batted ninth.

If the United States has a weak link, it probably is the starting rotation, but left-hander Gio Gonzalez’s five scoreless innings against Puerto Rico perhaps changes that perspective as well. Gonzalez and R.A. Dickey — the third- and first-place finishers for the National League Cy Young Award last season — are lined up to pitch the semifinal and final in San Francisco, if the US qualifies.

Dickey didn’t fare well in his first WBC start, and he will face an electric Dominican lineup on Thursday. The outing will be only his fourth of the spring, and not even Dickey can venture a guess at how much his knuckleball will be moving. But let’s not forget how good he was last season — he and Gonzalez both.

Before Tuesday night’s game, a former major leaguer from Puerto Rio predicted “Carlos (Beltran) and Yadi (Molina) will get Gio — Nats-Cards.” The player’s reference was to last year’s Division Series, in which Gonzalez lasted only five innings in each of his two starts — and issued a total of 11 walks.

That was the hyper, emotional Gonzalez. This Gonzalez more closely resembled the guy who went 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA in the 2012 regular season. In mid-March he was in midseason form, throwing 69 pitches, 48 for strikes — and issuing zero walks.

A reporter asked Gonzalez afterward how he stayed composed; Gonzalez, calling himself “a small-town kid from Hialeah, Fla.,” was pitching close to home, and pitching in a USA uniform for the first time.

Gonzalez’s answer pointed out another strength of the US operation —the coaching staff.

“Yeah, I was talking to Greg Maddux about that and asking him questions, how can I tunnel that, the noise and everything,” Gonzalez said, referring to the US team’s pitching coach and future Hall of Famer. “He just broke it down to something simple — think of fielding a routine groundball and just fishing or something, just take your mind off of it."

Gonzalez said he understood Maddux’s point immediately. He then mentioned Mauer, how the catcher’s 6-foot-5 frame made him an easy target, how the two were so in sync, Gonzalez shook him off only once all night.

It’s fun pitching for a team like this — the bullpen followed Gonzalez by allowing just one run in four innings, giving it a 2.00 ERA in four tournament games. It’s fun playing for a team like this, absorbing the wisdom of Torre and coaches such as Maddux and Dale Murphy, mixing with so many fellow stars.

The US players might never display the same joy as the Dominicans, who poured out of their dugout to celebrate each run in their 5-4 comeback victory over Italy. But Jones, in a postgame tweet, noted the difference in the team’s outlook now that it has survived its scare in the first round.

“Everyone looked a lot looser tonight and it showed,” Jones said. “We’re all starting to get in that groove again.”

Wright, 7-for-16 with 10 RBI, has had his groove for the entire WBC. He rapidly is becoming the face of the US team, with MLB sending out tweets calling him, “Captain America.” When a reporter asked Wright in his postgame news conference about the nickname, Gonzalez cracked, “Where’s the shield?”

In the buildup to the tournament, it almost seemed that the only American players who possessed unique baseball powers were the ones who were missing. Turns out that Wright also has some of those powers, and he isn’t the only one. Twenty-eight players, 28 shields.