Amidst the annual chaos of March Madness, baseball players from 16 nations all around the world gathered on some of the game’s grandest stages for their own elite competition. This was the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) that concluded with the United States taking home their first WBC Championship in the fourth edition of the tournament.
Many diehard baseball fans in America, as well as many American baseball players, have historically shown little interest in the WBC. It’s possible that this has something to do with the timing. Not only does the WBC compete with college basketball for the nation’s attention, but it also concludes weeks before the Major League Baseball (MLB) season itself every four years.
A 162-game season in the MLB is obviously very grueling. It takes a lot of mental and physical preparation to handle something like that. As a result, many of the top players opt to focus on their upcoming season opposed to a competitive international tournament. This is understandable when you consider the fact that their professional careers rely on them staying healthy. Many Major Leaguers born outside of America will represent their home nations, but Team USA came up empty in the first three competitions.
The first round consisted of a round-robin format, where 16 teams were divided into four pools and played each team in their pool once. The top two teams with the best record from each pool would advance to the second round. Those eight qualifiers were then separated into two more pools for another round-robin that would determine the final four.
The first round of the WBC took place in Seoul, South Korea; Tokyo, Japan; Miami, Florida and Zapopan, Mexico. The second round hosts were Tokyo and San Diego, California.
Team USA began in Pool C with the Dominican Republic, Columbia and Canada. They found themselves trailing Columbia 2-0 in the sixth inning of their opening game. Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles would cut the lead in half with an RBI-double before the game was tied on a wild pitch.
The game remained tied until the bottom of the 10th, when Jones struck again. The centerfielder laced a single to bring home the winning run for Team USA. The win proved vital when they fell 7-5 to the Dominican Republic their next time out.
Team USA defeated Canada 8-0 in the final game of the first round and earned second place in Pool C behind the Dominican Republic (3-0). They would advance to round two along with Israel, The Netherlands, Japan, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
Teams USA and Dominican were linked up with Puerto Rico and Venezuela for round two. Puerto Rico cruised to three victories while the U.S. and the Dominican split their first two contests before facing each other in the round’s final game. The winner would advance to the championship round with Puerto Rico, The Netherlands and Japan.
Team USA upset the Dominican 6-3 at Petco Park in San Diego and earned a spot in the final round. Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins each combined for two RBIs in the victory. Southpaw Danny Duffy from the Kansas City Royals logged four innings and picked up the victory.
The three games of the Championship round would all take place at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles. The first semifinal took place on Monday between The Netherlands and Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico remained undefeated and advanced to the final game, but just barely. It took them 11 innings to take down The Netherlands.
Team USA was also facing an undefeated team. Japan boasted a 6-0 record and has been a powerhouse in passed tournaments. The U.S. used seven pitchers to hold Japan to just one run. Jones and McCutchen each recorded an RBI to another upset win for Team USA. Japan managed just four hits and left six runners on base.
With a record of 5-2, the U.S. would have to hand Puerto Rico their first loss of the tournament for the right to call themselves champions on Wednesday night. Three Team USA players recorded a pair of RBIs each. This included Ian Kinsler of the Detroit Tigers, Brandon Crawford of the San Francisco Giants and McCutchen. The real story of the championship game took place on the mound. Starting pitcher Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays continues his tournament dominance and shut the door on Puerto Rico in a heartbeat. Stroman logged six scoreless innings and held Puerto Rico to just one hit. He was named MVP of the WBC following the game. All told, U.S. pitching would surrender just three hits in the 8-0 victory.
The end of WBC also marks the end of Jim Leyland’s baseball career. Leyland has been out of the MLB spotlight since 2013, but still embraced to honor of coaching Team USA for one last sendoff this year. The 72-year-old led the 1997 Florida Marlins to a World Series Championship after winning three straight division titles for the Pirates. He became one of just seven managers in the history of MLB to win a pennant in both the American and National Leagues when he took the Tigers to the World Series in 2006. And now, in the twilight of his career, he has led the U.S. to their first ever WBC title.
The tournament victory should do wonders for the U.S. moving forward. Before last night, American players and fans seemed to look down on the WBC. There were obviously many stars on the team this year that was able to bring home the title, but it’s not quite the elite players that this country is capable of showcasing. Some of the game’s best that watched the tournament at home while preparing for their seasons witnessed their peers band together and bring honor to the United States. That should be enough for more and more stars to be curious enough to participate.
In turn, American baseball fans will begin to see it as an opportunity to watch the best talent in the world at all levels. The WBC is expected to take place again in 2021.