MIAMI — Trey Turner has faced Venezuelan right-hander Silvino Bracho exactly once in his career.
“Watch the ad-pat highlight,” he told me before I interviewed him on FS1.
“Bad?” I asked.
“Too bad,” Turner replied.
The at-bat took place on 26 Sep 2016, Turner’s former team, the Nationals, trailed the Diamondbacks 14-4 in the ninth inning of a game. Bracho threw an 82-mph slider. Turner checked his swing. His first ball was so weak that he got no runs.
Too bad — and Turner’s full reference when Bracho entered the quarterfinals of Saturday night’s World Baseball Classic with the bases loaded, not out in the bottom of the eighth, as Venezuela outlasted the United States 7-5.
Turner, Team USA’s $300 million no. 9 Hitter bowled fast for strike one. He fouled another fast bowler for strike two. During that time, he was 3-for-13 in the WBC, although one of his hits was a homer. Just like he was in a normal spring training, he was still finding his swing. At 0-2, he knew he had Mookie Betts and Mike Trout hitting behind him.
Bracho has made just four major league appearances over the past four seasons. Venezuela manager Omar Lopez had to eject left fielder Jose Quijada after he walked Tim Anderson and allowed pinch-hitter Pete Alonso’s bloop single to load the bases by scoring JD Realmuto. Closer Jose Alvarado didn’t get more than four outs, Lopez said.
Bracho threw a changeup to Turner over the heart of the plate. This time, Turner didn’t check his swing. Instead, he turned on the pitch furiously, following it up with a sublime one-handed finish. On a night filled with many doubts, reliever Daniel Bard had a frightening loss of control, helped turn a 5-2 lead into a 6-5 deficit, and Turner hit the ultimate undoubted, immortal grand slam.
“I feel blacked out,” Turner said.
He is not alone.
“I saw about 35 people, including coaches,” said Team USA manager Mark DeRosa.
Memories may be hazy for Turner, DeRosa and Co., but the vigilantes will never forget what they saw. Turner heads toward first base, shaking with excitement and gesturing toward the dugout. Then, the same way Venezuela and many other foreign teams do, he finishes third with almost all of Team USA waiting at home plate to celebrate with him.
Major-league clubs are so reserved that the dugout empties only for walks. But DeRosa, who played in Venezuela for Leones del Caracas during the 2000-01 season, knew Saturday night had to be different. WBC was down to single elimination. And the sold-out crowd in Miami is sure to support Venezuela.
DeRosa told his players before the game to “let it go” to match the energy of the Venezuelan team. If an American player hits a home run, meet him at home plate. Nolan Arenado shared a similar message. Team USA will effectively be a road team, Arenado said. It must generate its own energy.
2017 WBC American hero Adam Jones entered the room as Arenado finished. He told the players to pump yourselves up. Be louder to your teammates than the crowd. Oh, and pump a single if you want, because that’s what your opponent will do.
“We’ve been a little dead in the pool play games,” catcher Realmudo said. “But here, they’re going to have a lot of fans behind them and we’ve got to come together in our dugouts and create as much energy as we can. It’s important to have that message before the game and know what to expect inside.
Jones wanted the Americans to be “dynamic,” and that’s what they were in the first inning, hammering Venezuelan opener Martin Perez with five straight singles to take a 3-0 lead. Venezuela’s Luis Ares responded in the bottom half with the first of his two homers, a two-run shot that provided the first indication that the night was unusual even by WBC standards.
Ares, the AL batting champion last season, has never produced a two-homer game in the majors. Heck, he’s only hit 20 homers in 850 professional games. But as Turner later said, talking about Team USA’s own comeback, “When you get punched in the mouth, you have to respond.”
There will be more punches. And many more.
In the top of the fifth, Kyle Tucker hit a home run to cut Team USA’s lead back to three runs. Lance Lynn pitched the first four innings for the US, allowing his only run on Ares’ homer. DeRosa, following a day off, took a break. And his first choice was Bard, who allowed four runs in Team USA’s loss to Mexico in pool play but bounced back with a scoreless inning against Colombia.
Bart, 37, has a history of control issues. In 2012, he developed “the thit” due to his inability to command the strike zone, keeping him out of the majors from 2014 to 2020. His comeback with the Rockies led to a two-year, $19 million contract extension last July. But among 152 qualified relievers last season, he still was 36th-highest walk rate.
Bard’s first sign of trouble was a five-pitch leadoff walk to Kleyber Torres on Saturday night. Andres Gimenez followed with an infield single. Bart threw a wild pitch to advance the runners. The plate appearance came as the latest fodder for critics of the WBC, who ignore the fact that unfortunate injuries also occur in spring-training games.
Jose Altuve was Bard’s third hitter, so DeRosa couldn’t pull him without exceeding the three-batter minimum at the time. But based on Bard’s history, including his first dismissal in the tournament, it could be reasonably argued that he should never have pitched. It could certainly be argued that DeRosa should have removed Aldu after hitting him in the right arm with a 96-mile sinker. Bard threw a second, run-scoring wild pitch and issued another walk. In the end he scored four runs.
Why didn’t DeRosa start heating up another reliever the moment Bart issued his leadoff walk? Under the restrictions imposed by major-league clubs, a reliever must pitch as soon as he gets up, the manager said. Still, even with limited flexibility, DeRosa shouldn’t have been in danger of letting an elimination game slip away.
The Astros will provide more information on Altuve’s condition on Sunday, but he left the park with his thumb wrapped and the initial fear was a broken finger. Lopez, the Astros’ first base coach, said he was “very concerned” about Altuve. Venezuela took the lead after Altuve struck. But Altuve’s injury is so troubling, Lopez said, “the whole dugout is dead.”
Just as Edwin Diaz’s freak knee injury sparked Puerto Rico’s stunning upset of the Dominican Republic, DeRosa’s injury to Altuve was “one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of.” However, the American players were still buzzing as they left the park, incredulous about what they had experienced. In the meeting. noise Turner’s grand slam, and scoreless innings by Devin Williams and Ryan Pressley saved the win.
“(The Royals’) Brady Singer was asking me what the playoffs would be like,” said American reliever Adam Ottavino, who 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 environment I’ve ever been in. Even though we lost it, it was a lot of fun to be a part of.
Echoing Ottavino’s sentiments, Realmuto also sent a subtle message to those who chose not to participate. “I can’t believe they’re going to stay in spring training rather than play in a game like that,” Realmudo said. “A lot of pride in the line. A lot of fun. The meaning of that game was clear for both teams.
However, for Team USA to successfully defend its WBC title, it needs to win two more games. The first is Sunday night’s semi-final against Cuba, with Adam Wainwright starting against Ronis Elias. Tuesday’s championship game will feature a second match against the winner of the Mexico-Japan semifinals.
DeRosa used six relievers against Venezuela, but Kendall Graveman and Aaron Loup didn’t pitch. Nick Martinez left the team on Saturday and rejoined the Padres, but Singer, Kyle Freeland and Merrill Kelly should get relief against Cuba, with Miles Mikolas among the starters expected to be held back to start the finals.
As crazy as that is, the regular season looms as a letdown. Competition in the WBC is pure. Miami’s atmosphere is unique. The roof is closed at Lone Depot Park, blaring music and roaring fans to get even louder. Kyle Schwarber said he’s never been a part of a game with such electricity in March. “It makes me want to go to a winter ball game and see how rowdy these fans get,” he said.
It’s tiring. It’s exciting. And it’s not over yet.
(Top photo: Eric Espada/Getty Images)