MIAMI – Trea Turner had faced Venezuelan right-hander Silvino Bracho exactly once in his career.
“Go look at the highlight of the at-bat,” he told me just before I interviewed him on FS1.
“Bad?” I asked.
“So bad,” Turner replied.
The at-bat took place on Sept. 26, 2016, in the ninth inning of a game in which Turner’s former team, the Nationals, trailed the Diamondbacks, 14-4. Bracho threw an 82-mph slider. Turner checked his swing. His groundball to first was so feeble, he never even ran.
Pretty bad — and Turner’s entire frame of reference when Bracho entered Saturday night’s World Baseball Classic quarterfinal with the bases loaded, none out in the top of the eighth and Venezuela leading the United States, 7-5.
Turner, Team USA’s $300 million No. 9 hitter, took a fastball for strike one. He fouled off another fastball for strike two. At that point, he was 3-for-13 in the WBC, though one of his hits was a homer. He was still looking for his swing, just as he might in a normal spring training. Down 0-2, he knew he had Mookie Betts and Mike Trout hitting behind him.
Bracho has made only four major-league appearances the past four seasons. Venezuela manager Omar López needed him to get outs after lefty Jose Quijada loaded the bases by walking Tim Anderson, allowing a bloop single by pinch-hitter Pete Alonso and hitting JT Realmuto. Closer José Alvarado, López said, was not available for more than four outs.
Bracho threw Turner a changeup, right over the heart of the plate. This time, Turner did not check his swing. Instead, he turned on the pitch furiously, following through with a majestic one-handed finish. On a night of so many doubts, a night when reliever Daniel Bard suffered a frightening loss of control, helping turn a 5-2 lead into a 6-5 deficit, Turner hit the ultimate no-doubter, an indelible grand slam.
“I feel like I blacked out,” Turner said.
He wasn’t alone.
“I saw about 35 guys, including the coaches, kind of black out,” Team USA manager Mark DeRosa said.
The memories might be hazy for Turner, DeRosa and Co., but those who were conscious will never forget what they saw. Turner skipping toward first base, shaking with excitement, gesturing toward the dugout. Then, rounding third with virtually all of Team USA waiting at home plate to celebrate with him, the same way the Venezuelan and many other foreign teams do.
Major-league clubs are more reserved, only emptying the dugout for walk-offs. But DeRosa, who played in Venezuela for Leones del Caracas during the 2000-01 offseason, knew Saturday night needed to be different. The WBC was down to single elimination. And the sellout crowd in Miami was certain to be pro-Venezuelan.
DeRosa told his players before the game to bring their passion, match Team Venezuela’s energy, “let it go.” He said if a US player hit a home run, meet him at home plate. Nolan Arenado also spoke, conveying a similar message. Team USA would effectively be the road team, Arenado said. It would need to create its own energy.
Adam Jones, the US hero of the 2017 WBC, entered the room after Arenado finished. Pump yourselves up, he told the players. Be louder for your teammates than the crowd will be. Oh, and pump a single if you’d like, because that’s what your opponent will do.
“We were a little more dead in the pool play games,” catcher Realmuto said. “But out here, it was like, they’re going to have so many fans behind them, we’ve got to band together in our dugout and create as much energy as we can. Having that message before the game, and knowing what to expect going in, was important.”
Jones wanted the US players to be “dynamic,” and that’s exactly what they were in the first inning, knocking out Venezuela starter Martín Pérez with five straight singles to open the game, taking a 3-0 lead. Venezuela’s Luis Arraez responded in the bottom half with the first of his two homers, a two-run shot that provided the first indication the night might be unusual, even by WBC standards.
Arraez, the AL batting champ last season, has never produced a two-homer game in the majors. Heck, he has hit only 20 homers in 850 professional games. But as Turner would later put it, talking about Team USA’s own comeback, “When you get punched in the mouth, you’ve got to respond.”
There would be more punches. Many more.
In the fifth, Kyle Tucker hits a home run to restore Team USA’s lead to three runs. Lance Lynn had pitched the first four innings for the US, allowing his only runs on Arraez’s homer. DeRosa, following a day off, had a rested bullpen. And his first choice was Bard, who had allowed four runs in Team USA’s loss to Mexico in pool play, but rebounded with a scoreless inning against Colombia.
Bard, 37, has a history of control problems. In 2012, he developed “the thing,” an inability to command the strike zone, keeping him out of the majors from 2014 until 2020. His comeback with the Rockies led to a two-year, $19 million contract extension last July. But out of 152 qualified relievers last season, he still had the 36th-highest walk rate.
Bard’s first sign of trouble Saturday night was a five-pitch leadoff walk to Gleyber Torres. Andrés Giménez followed with an infield single. Bard threw a wild pitch to advance the runners. Then came the plate appearance that will be the latest fodder for critics of the WBC, who seem to ignore that unfortunate injuries occur in spring-training games, too.
Jose Altuve was Bard’s third hitter, so DeRosa could not pull him at that point without violating the three-batter minimum. But based on Bard’s history, including his first outing in the tournament, he can reasonably be argued that he never should have pitched. It can definitely be argued that DeRosa should have removed him after he hit Altuve in the right hand with a 96-mph sinker. Bard proceeded to throw a second, run-scoring wild pitch and issue another walk. He ultimately was charged with four runs.
Why didn’t DeRosa start warming up another reliever the moment Bard issued his leadoff walk? The manager said that under the restrictions imposed by major-league clubs, once a reliever gets up, he needs to pitch. Yet, even with limited flexibility, DeRosa should not have risked an elimination game slipping away.
The Astros will provide more information on Altuve’s condition Sunday, but he left the park with his thumb wrapped, and the initial fear is that the finger is broken. López, the Astros’ first base coach, said he was “very concerned,” about Altuve, “deeply concerned.” Venezuela took the lead after Altuve was hit. But the injury to Altuve was so disturbing, López said, “the whole dugout kind of died.”
Just as Edwin Díaz’s freakish knee injury cast a pall on Puerto Rico’s stunning upset of the Dominican Republic, the injury to Altuve took some of the shine off what DeRosa called “one of the greatest games I’ve been a part of.” The US players, though, were still buzzing as they left the park, incredulous over what they had experienced. The crowd. The noise. The grand slam by Turner, and the scoreless innings by Devin Williams and Ryan Pressly to preserve the victory.
“(The Royals’) Brady Singer was asking me what the playoffs are like,” said US reliever Adam Ottavino, who has pitched in eight different postseason series for four different clubs. “I was like, I don’t even know if they’re like this. That was the best atmosphere I’ve been in. It was just so fun to be a part of, even if we would have lost it.”
Realmuto, echoing Ottavino’s thoughts, even sent a subtle message to those who chose not to participate. “I can’t believe anybody would rather stay in spring training than play in a game like that,” Realmuto said. “So much pride on the line. So much fun. It was clear to both teams how much that game meant.”
Yet, for Team USA to successfully defend its WBC title, it will need to win two more games that might be just as intense. The first will be Sunday night’s semifinal against Cuba, with Adam Wainwright starting against Roenis Elías. The second would be against the winner of the Mexico-Japan semifinal in Tuesday’s championship game.
DeRosa used six relievers against Venezuela, but Kendall Graveman and Aaron Loup did not pitch. Nick Martinez left the team Saturday to join the Padres, but Singer, Kyle Freeland and Merrill Kelly are among the starters who should be available in relief against Cuba, assuming Miles Mikolas is held back to start a potential final.
Crazy as it sounds, the regular season looms as a letdown. The competition in the WBC is pure. The atmosphere in Miami is unique. The roof is closed at loanDepot Park, making the blaring music and roaring fans sound even louder. Kyle Schwarber said he had never been part of a game in March with such electricity. Pressly added, “It almost makes me kind of want to go play in winter ball and see how rowdy these fans get.”
It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating. And it isn’t over yet.
(Top pic: Eric Espada/Getty Images)