Ousted US took half-hearted approach

March 15, 2013

Joe Torre spoke beautifully. Joe Torre always speaks beautifully.

He began his news conference by saying he was a little emotional and calling the World Baseball Classic one of the most memorable experiences of his career.

He ended it by evoking the late John Wooden, who said that sometimes he was prouder of his teams that lost than his teams that won, simply because of the effort they put forth.

Impassioned, lyrical stuff.

But on this night, after back-to-back losses to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico within 24 hours knocked Team USA out of the WBC, Torre’s words were not good enough.

I get how a double-elimination round of an international tournament is a decidedly small sample. And I get that many Team USA players would be far better prepared if the WBC did not take place in the middle of spring training.

But such excuses, in the wake of Team USA’s elimination by Puerto Rico in a 4-3 loss on Friday night, no longer are good enough, either.

Team USA is now 10-10 in three WBCs.

Someone tell me: Is the U.S. in or out?

Are more of its best players going to commit to the WBC? Will its next manager and next set of players demonstrate the same urgency as their opponents, particularly the teams from Latin America? Or will its next manager again be required to operate like a Little League coach, making sure everyone participates to satisfy the requirements of the players’ major league clubs?

Please, don’t tell me how the Latin American players stay sharp in winter ball — as my colleague Jon Paul Morosi pointed out on Twitter, Puerto Rican stars such as Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan and Alex Rios didn’t play winter ball this offseason, and Yadier Molina appeared in only 14 games.

And please, don’t tell me about how great Samuel Deduno pitched for the D.R., or how brilliantly Nelson Figueroa painted for Puerto Rico. Deduno, a member of the Minnesota Twins, averaged six walks per nine innings last season. Figueroa, a career journeyman who pitched six scoreless innings Friday night, spent all of last season at Triple A.

Brandon Phillips spoke respectfully about Figueroa, saying that he hit his spots and kept the U.S. hitters off balance, but c’mon. Figueroa is 38. He threw one pitch as hard as 88 mph, and mostly worked at 86-87 with what one scout called a “sloppy” slider.

One U.S. hitter acknowledged that Team USA had plenty of chances, citing a 2-0 fastball that Ryan Braun took for a called strike after a leadoff single by Phillips in the fourth inning. The U.S. finally rallied from a 4-0 deficit against the inexperienced Puerto Rican bullpen, but veteran J.C. Romero — currently unemployed, released by St. Louis and Baltimore last season — got the final four outs, in order, for the save.

Injuries hurt Team USA. Eric Hosmer, an emerging but inexperienced hitter, replaced Mark Teixeira at first base. In Florida alone, Prince Fielder, Adam LaRoche, Freddie Freeman and Allen Craig would have been better options.

And, with apologies for mixing up my super-heroes, the loss of third baseman David Wright, “Captain America,” proved to be Team USA’s kryptonite in the final two games. The team could not substitute for Wright in the middle of a round, leaving its bench short on Friday night, not to mention Ben Zobrist at third base — a position he had played only four times in the majors.

Torre had no realistic alternative to hit for Hosmer with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth, and Hosmer grounded out to second, finishing the tournament 5-for-25. But looking back, the game had turned earlier — specifically, in Puerto Rico’s three-run sixth, when Torre made a series of curious pitching decisions.

First, Torre pulled Ryan Vogelsong after 73 pitches with two outs and a runner on first. Vogelsong had pitched well after getting hit hard in the first inning, and trailed only 1-0. And the way WBC rules work, he could have surpassed the 80-pitch limit even if the next hitter, Mike Aviles, extended him beyond seven pitches; a pitcher is allowed to finish an at-bat even if he exceeds the limit.

Right-hander Vinnie Pestano replaced Vogelsong and promptly allowed a single by Aviles and a walk to Rios to load the bases. A left-handed hitter, Carlos Rivera, was next. But did Torre turn to lefty Jeremy Affeldt? Nope, he stuck with Pestano, who allowed a bases-loaded walk. Did Torre then make a change? Nope, he again stuck with Pestano, who allowed a two-run double by Andy Gonzalez, on an 0-2 slider.

That made it 4-0, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. never recovered.

Torre, at one point in his postgame news conference, uncharacteristically bristled at a question about whether holding the tournament in the middle of spring training hurts Team USA. The question, he said, would not even have been relevant if the U.S. had gotten a hit with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth, instead of ending up with merely a bases-loaded walk.

In response to a follow-up about this being the third straight WBC disappointment for the U.S., Torre said, “I guess John Elway had to win a Super Bowl for everybody to consider him a great, great player. It doesn’t always happen. Ernie Banks never was at a World Series. It’s just what happens in short series. It’s not easy to do.”

No argument, but three straight disappointments amount to a pattern. Both Braun and Phillips said they would highly recommend the WBC experience to other players. Perhaps this latest knockout will inspire the next generation of hitters — Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, etc. — to go all-in. And perhaps the next time the best U.S. pitchers will say to themselves, “I’ve got to do this,” and prepare accordingly.

Heaven knows, there is no ideal time for the tournament, and a number of players have legitimate reasons for declining to participate. OK, fine. The players, as I’ve written previously, are mostly good enough.

It’s the mindset that needs to change, from the major league clubs to the Team USA manager and players. Maybe the urgency can never be what it is for Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. But Phillips put it best, saying, “You just see how everybody’s passion is totally different than our country’s.” Right now, the U.S. approach is too half-hearted.

Joe Torre spoke beautifully, and his words rang hollow.

Doesn’t that alone indicate a problem?