SAN DIEGO — The tendency, I guess, is to search for the greater meaning of the World Baseball Classic, pushing the game beyond borders drawn and undrawn. Lacking that, to uncover the nuance created by something so unusual as, say, Venezuela vs. USA in a downtown ballpark surrounded by soaring condos and, apparently, some reticence. Just more than 16,000 attended on Wednesday night at Petco Park.
“You can talk about that stuff all you want,” said Ian Kinsler, Team USA second baseman, a veteran of more than one of these. “But it really comes down to the guy holding the ball and the guy holding the bat.”
There’ll be times and places devoted to the rest, to who plays and how often and the intricacies of when and where, but none of that registers in the bottom of the eighth inning, down a run, the guy holding the ball throwing 96, the guy holding the bat hoping to survive it.
“It feels normal,” said Nolan Arenado, the U.S. third baseman and a first timer.
The baseball, then, can be exceptional. Forget for March. Forget for a trumped-up tournament misplaced in three or four ways, forged on a whim, witnessed by 16 grand, and, oh, Martin Prado pulled a hamstring in an exhibition game.
“The guys that are here, we want to win,” Arenado said. “That’s why we’re here.”
Which brings us to those three hours and 13 minutes of ball, the U.S., regular favorites who in four of these haven’t yet played up to that, vs. Venezuela, which three-and-a-half months ago appeared on the verge of organizational collapse (manager Omar Vizquel was fired and rehired over about 72 hours) and several days ago advanced to San Diego on the strength of .01 runs not allowed and a tie-breaker game.
And then to the eighth inning of that game, Venezuela ahead, 2-1, the U.S. sliding into the back end of Venezuela’s bullpen and games ahead against Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and more of the same history.
And then to Adam Jones, who before the game nodded his head over the bleachers here, in the direction he estimated his high school — Morse High — to be, and said, “About 15 minutes that way.”
Hector Rondon has saved 77 games for the Chicago Cubs the past three seasons. Jones had faced him once before, years ago. He’d asked Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison about Rondon, and they’d told him what he suspected. The fastball is big. Too big to look anything but fastball. Rondon threw Jones a 96-mph fastball near the top of the strike zone five pitches into the eighth inning. Jones hit it over the fence in left-center field. The score was 2-2.
“To do it in San Diego, a military city, representing the United States, my brother and my father, and countless friends of mine representing the United States in the military, it’s pretty special,” Jones said.
That was later. There’d be more.
To Eric Hosmer, three batters later, he too becoming a regular in this tournament, he too seeking fastballs against Rondon. Christian Yelich was at first base. The first-pitch fastball came in high, and here’s the thing about high fastballs: no matter the venue, no matter the velocity, no matter the name of the event, those tend to go a long way. Hosmer hit it better than 400 feet, through the cool air and the marine layer, until it rattled off the fence in right-center field and fell behind it. The U.S. led, 4-2, which would be the final score.
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Just a couple fastballs. Just a couple swings. The U-S-A chants that had stirred early in the game and wilted under Venezuela starter Felix Hernandez’s five shutout innings, under a late 2-0 deficit, they stuck this time. Having appeared almost stuffy beside the fantastically engaged and theatrical teams from Latin America, U.S. players bounded from the dugout, greeted first Jones, then Yelich and Hosmer, with healthy, gluttonous glee.
“There was so much excitement,” said Drew Smyly, who’d started for the U.S. and allowed a single (unearned) run and struck out eight across 4 2/3 innings. His fastball normally registers about 90. Against Venezuela, it had gained three or four miles per hour.
“Obviously,” he said with a grin, “there was a little extra adrenaline.”
Until then, it had been a sleepier night at the ballpark. The pitchers threw cleverly and threw strikes. Most of the hitters went softly. Fans of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic had slipped away the night before, taking their horns and voices with them. There was one dude in a full George Washington getup.
But it was good. And it left them wrung out. And afterward Jim Leyland, the U.S. manager, padded along a corridor in his full uniform except for the shower shoes. Soon, he’d be asked about the crowd, the venue, what it all meant. He’s been doing this for a very long time, however, and every one of those games across every one of those seasons rested on the very same dimension. There was a guy with the ball. There was the guy with the bat. It hardly ever got more complicated than that.
“We won a game,” he said. “We won a game against an unbelievable lineup. So you take this one.”