A double elimination tournament is vastly different than a typical best-of-seven baseball playoff series, and so less than 72 hours after their best and most complete game of the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Team USA's stars are headed back to their Major League camps while Puerto Rico is on their way to the semifinals. That's because three days after the US thumped Puerto Rico 7-1, Puerto Rico returned the favor by nipping the US 4-3 on Friday night.
In the first round of the tournament the US nearly failed to advance because of their bad habit of falling behind early in games, which resulted in deficits against both Italy and Canada before the high powered United States offense powered comebacks. The same thing happened on Friday, but this time the US rally was too little, too late. Puerto Rico got a quick run in the first inning thanks to three singles by Angel Pagan, Yadier Molina, and Mike Aviles. That 1-0 was the only run anyone saw until the sixth inning, with Ryan Vogelsong and Nelson Figueroa trading zeroes in the second, third, fourth, and fifth innings.
Vogelsong came out of the game with two outs in the sixth and Carlos Beltran on first, though, even though he had enough pitches to face one more batter (he was at 73 with a limit of 80). Joe Torre said after the game that he simply didn't want to push any of his pitchers, which presumably means that he was working on pitch counts dictated by MLB managers and not tournament limits. The decision to pull Vogelsgong before the inning ended turned out to be disastrous for the US, though. Vinnie Pestano came in and gave up a single to Mike Aviles, then he walked Alex Rios to load the bases, walked Carlos Rivera to score Beltran, and served up a two-run double to Andy Gonzalez to put Puerto Rico up 4-0. Jeremy Affeldt replaced Pestano at that point, but the damage was done.
With Figueroa done after six innings, the US tried to mount a comeback against the Puerto Rican bullpen. Joe Mauer tripled and scored on a Giancarlo Stanton single in the seventh to make the score 4-1. In the eighth, Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Philips hit back-to-back one out singles, then Ryan Braun doubled Rollins in. After a pitching change, Mauer drew a walk to load the bases up. The scene at that point was this: Puerto Rico up 4-2, bases loaded for the US with just one out, Xavier Cedeno on the mound, and Giancarlo Stanton, Ben Zobrist, and Eric Hosmer due up. Stanton popped out, Zobrist drew a walk to pull the US to within one, and Eric Hosmer grounded out against JC Romero, who was brought in to close out the game. The US couldn't garner a base runner against Romero in the ninth. The comeback was too little, too late.
In the immediate aftermath of the loss, there's going to be plenty of finger-pointing as to why this US team failed to even reach the semifinals. Ken Rosenthal points to all of the signs that the US simply didn't take the tournament as seriously as their opponents this morning: pulling Vogelsong early, Eric Hosmer being the guy up with the game on the line and not someone like Prince Fielder, and it'd be easy to keep going all morning with questions about a team that had Shane Victorino and Willie Bloomquist on the roster and that went straight to Vinnie Pestano in a tight game in the sixth inning. The reality is that while we can ask questions about roster construction, the US still had the most talented roster in the tournament and while there's plenty of unpredictability in deciding things by a double-elimination tournament instead of a best-of-seven-or-five-or-even-three game series, Team USA finished behind two lesser-talented teams and failed to advance.
After 2+ weeks of WBC action, this much is clear: this tournament is incredibly important in Asia and in Latin America, and that goes for both the players and the fans. It's important for developing baseball countries, too. That leaves the USA on an island as the one country that's still trying to figure out exactly how much this tournament matters to them. That's a difficult island to stay on, when less talented teams are celebrating on the field in front of you while jubilant crowds revel in having a home team to cheer for on an international stage. You can be the indifferent kid in the corner that thinks he's to cool to have fun with everyone else for so long, but once all of your indifferent cool friends have joined in on the fun, you're just an outsider. If there's anything that's going to drag the US players (and the people that manage the US team) into taking this tournament more seriously, it's got to be what happened to them on the field in Miami this week.
Puerto Rico, meanwhile, will play the Dominican Republic this afternoon at 1:00 PM EDT in a seeding game. Because the winner of today's game will both avoid Japan in the semifinals and get Sunday off, this game is not entirely meaningless. Orlando Roman will start for Puerto Rico. Wandy Rodriguez will start for the Dominican Republic.