Apologists for the U.S. team in the World Baseball Classic could argue that many of the best Americans didn’t play.
Justin Verlander, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder, Mike Trout, Stephen Strasburg and Buster Posey were notably absent for various reasons, most related to injury or avoidance of injury. David Wright, nicknamed Captain America, pulled out of the tournament with a rib injury.
Still, it’s not like Puerto Rico used a glam lineup to eliminate the favored U.S. 4-3 on Friday night at Marlins Park.
America was beat at its own national pastime by pitcher Nelson Figueroa, a 38-year-old Nuyorican who spent last season playing for two triple A clubs. He pitched six innings and relinquished no runs.
The U.S., which has not and will not play in the WBC final in three tries, was beat by Andy Gonzalez, who spent last season playing for double A Huntsville and triple A Nashville and the past offseason playing for the Caguas Criollos in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Gonzalez’s two-run double off the left-field wall in the sixth inning was pivotal.
The U.S. was beat in the stands by loud Puerto Rican fans, including one dressed up as a (ital)coqui,(ital) the tree frog native to the island who is known for croaking (co-KEY!) at a volume disproportionate to its tiny size.
Puerto Rico roared on the world stage Friday. The Boricuas join the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands and two-time defending champ Japan in the championship round starting Sunday in San Francisco.
The U.S. is finished after losses on consecutive nights to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Manager Joe Torre’s team stranded seven runners on base and pitcher Ryan Vogelsong took the loss.
When centerfielder Angel Pagan caught Jimmy Rollins’ fly ball for the final out, he and his elated teammates piled on top of each other in the infield beneath a sliver of a moon as their flag-waving supporters serenaded them with song, fevered drumming and rhythmic horn blowing.
They had survived an eighth-inning rally by the U.S. as four of their pitchers escaped bases-loaded jams and fended off Giancarlo Stanton and Eric Hosmer’s opportunities for RBI.
Puerto Rico’s suspenseful win was good for baseball in the commonwealth, where the sport has plummeted in popularity over the past 15 years.
It was good for Edwin Rodriguez, who became the first Major League manager from Puerto Rico three years ago, and should still be the Marlins manager today. He said he feels a “responsibility” to do well in the WBC in order to inspire young Puerto Rican players.
“We’re not playing to shock anybody; we are playing to honor our country and to see how far we can go,” Pagan said. “We need this in Puerto Rico. The quantity of baseball guys has been down and we want the kids coming up to see us as an example, as a light to follow. We want to leave the best legacy so they can be our next generation.”
It’s been a long time since Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda were national heroes. Too long since the glory years of Pudge Rodriguez, Roberto Alomar, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Ruben Sierra, Edgar Martinez, Carlos Baerga, Juan Gonzalez, Carlos Delgado and Benito Santiago. Catcher Yadier Molina and outfielders Carlos Beltran and Alex Rios are the only All-Stars on Puerto Rico’s WBC team.
Last year, there were only 17 Puerto Ricans in the Major Leagues, compared to 128 Dominicans, 91 Venezuelans and 18 Cubans.
That number dropped from 53 in 2001 to 28 to 2011 and to just 11 Puerto Ricans on 2012 Opening Day rosters.
The Puerto Rican Winter League isn’t what it used to be – an important offseason destination for MLB players. It is down to six teams, composed mostly of minor leaguers, and that’s an expansion from the four teams fielded in recent years, when no team played in San Juan and Hiram Bithorn Stadium sat empty. The Santurce Crabbers once had Clemente and Willie Mays in their lineup. The Senators boasted a lineup that included Alomar, Martinez, Sierra, Gonzalez, Williams and Delgado at the 1995 Caribbean World Series.
One theory for the decline in PR prospects: As a commonwealth of the U.S., Puerto Ricans must wait until they graduate from high school or turn 18 to enter the MLB Draft. Dominicans and Venezuelans are eligible to sign at age 16.
A positive sign was the first No. 1 draft pick in Puerto Rican history in 2012 – shortstop Carlos Correa is also a product of one of the three academies on the island.
Jose Berrios, 18, top pitching prospect for the Twins, watched the WBC in 2009. On Friday, he was in the dugout, then sprinting onto the field to celebrate.
The U.S. players could only look on as the party continued without them.
“As an offense we really didn’t swing the bats very well, especially early, in most of these games,” Ryan Braun said. “The expectation was to get to San Francisco and ultimately to win in San Francisco.”
They failed to score against Figueroa, whose fastball did not exceed 88 mph and who is known in the Dominican league as “rubber arm daddy.” For one night, at least, his name is up there with the prominent ones of Puerto Rico’s past.
“I want to give a dream to a kid who struggled in Puerto Rico throwing a ball against the wall the whole night long as I did,” he said. “Just for the chance to win something big for my country.”