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.