MIAMI – Trea Turner has faced Venezuelan right-hander Silvino Bracho exactly once in his career.
“Go watch the at-bat highlight,” he told me right before I interviewed him on FS1.
“Bad?” I asked.
“So bad,” Turner replied.
The game occurred on September 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 first pitch was so weak he never got a run.
Pretty bad — and Turner’s entire frame of reference when Bracho entered Saturday night’s World Baseball Classic quarterfinals with the bases loaded, none out in the top of the eighth, and Venezuela leading the U.S., 7-5.
Turner, the $300 million No. 9 hitter for Team USA, took a fastball for the first strike. He fouled out on another fastball for the second strike. He was 3-for-13 in the WBC at that point, although one of his hits was a homer. He was still looking for his swing, just as he might in normal spring training. Down 0-2, he knew Mookie Betts and Mike Trout were hitting behind him.
Bracho has made only four appearances in the first division in the last four seasons. Venezuela manager Omar López needed it to get the run after lefty Jose Quijada loaded the bases by walking Tim Anderson, allowing a bloop single to shortstop Pete Alonso and scoring JT Realmut. Closer José Alvarado, López said, was unavailable for more than four outs.
Bracho threw Turner a changeup, right across center plate. This time, Turner didn’t check his swing. Instead, he turned furiously on the pitch, before finishing magnificently with one hand. On a night full of doubt, a night when shortstop Daniel Bard suffered a terrifying loss of control, helping turn a 5-2 lead into a 6-5 deficit, Turner hit the ultimate no doubt, an indelible grand slam.
“I feel like I passed out,” Turner said.
He was not alone.
“I saw about 35 guys, including the coaches, who were passed out,” Team USA manager Mark DeRosa said.
Memories may be hazy for Turner, DeRosa and Co., but those who were conscious will never forget what they saw. Turner leaps toward first base, shaking with excitement, gestures toward the dugout. Then, rounding out the third with almost the entire USA team waiting at home to celebrate with him, the same way the Venezuelan and many other foreign teams do.
First league clubs are more restrained, empty spaces only for walking. But DeRosa, who played in Venezuela for the Leones del Caracas during the 2000-01 season, knew Saturday night had to be different. The WBC went down to one elimination. And the sold-out crowd in Miami was certainly pro-Venezuelan.
Before the game, DeRosa told his players to bring their passion, match the energy of the Venezuelan team, “let it go.” He said that if a player from the USA hits a home run, welcome him home. Nolan Arenado also spoke and conveyed a similar message. Team USA would essentially be a road team, Arenado said. It should create its own energy.
Adam Jones, the 2017 WBC American hero, entered the room after Arenado finished. Pump yourself up, he told the players. Be louder for your teammates than the crowd will be. Oh, and pump a single if you want, because that’s what your opponent will do.
“We were a little more dead in the pool games,” catcher Realmuto said. “But out here, it was like they’re going to have so many fans behind them, we have to come together in our club and create as much energy as we can. It was important to have that message before the game and know what to expect going in.”
Jones wanted the American players to be “dynamic,” and that’s exactly what they were in the first inning, knocking out Venezuelan 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 home goals, a double strike that gave the first indication that it could be an unusual evening, even by WBC standards.
Arraez, the AL batting champion last season, has never had a two-homer game in the majors. Heck, he only scored 20 goals in 850 professional games. But as Turner later said, talking about his own Team USA comeback, “When you get hit in the mouth, you have to respond.”
There would be more blows. Many more.
In the fifth, Kyle Tucker hit a home run to restore Team USA’s lead to three runs. Lance Lynn pitched the first four innings for the USA, allowing his only runs on Arraez’s homer. DeRosa, after the day off, had a rested bullpen. And his first choice was Bard, who allowed four runs in Team USA’s loss to Mexico in pool play but bounced back after a scoreless inning against Colombia.
Bard, 37, has a history of control issues. In 2012, he developed “the thing,” an inability to command the strike zone, which kept him out of the majors from 2014 to 2020. His return with the Rockies led to a two-year, $19 million contract extension last July. But out of 152 qualified players last season, he still had the 36th-highest walk rate.
Bard’s first sign of trouble Saturday night was a five-pitch lead 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 the WBC’s critics, who seem to ignore that unfortunate injuries happen in spring training games, too.
Jose Altuve was Bard’s third hitter, so DeRosa couldn’t pull him at that point without violating the three-strikeout minimum. But based on Bard’s history, including his first appearance in the tournament, it can be reasonably argued that he should never have played. It can definitely be argued that DeRosa should have removed him after hitting Altuve in the right hand with a 96 mph sinker. Bard proceeded to throw the second, a wild pitch that scored and issued another walk. He ended up being charged for four runs.
Why didn’t DeRosa start warming up another reliever the moment Bard gave away his lead? The manager said that, according to the restrictions imposed by the Premier League clubs, when a player who has slowed down, he has to come on. Still, even with limited flexibility, DeRosa shouldn’t have risked an elimination game slipping away from him.
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 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 Altuve injury was so disturbing, López said, “the whole country died.”
Just as Edwin Díaz’s freak knee injury put a damper on Puerto Rico’s incredible upset of the Dominican Republic, Altuve’s injury took some of the shine off what DeRosa called “one of the best games I’ve been a part of.” The American players, however, were still buzzing as they left the park, in disbelief at what they had experienced. Crowd. Noise. Turner’s grand slam, and scoreless innings by Devin Williams and Ryan Pressly to preserve the win.
“Brady Singer (of the Royals) asked me what the playoffs look like,” said American shortstop Adam Ottavino, who played in eight different postseason series for four different clubs. “I was like, I don’t even know if they’re like this. It was the best atmosphere I’ve ever been in. It was so much fun to be a part of it, even if we were to lose it.”
Echoing Ottavino’s thoughts, Realmuto even sent a subtle message to those who chose not to participate. “I can’t believe that anybody would rather stay in spring training than play in a game like this,” Realmuto said. “So much pride on the line. So much fun. It was clear to both teams how much that game meant.”
However, for Team USA to successfully defend their WBC title, they will need to win two more matches that could be just as intense. First up is Sunday night’s semi-final against Cuba, with Adam Wainwright starting against Roenis Elías. The other would be against the winner of the Mexico-Japan semifinal in Tuesday’s championship game.
DeRosa used six balls against Venezuela, but Kendall Graveman and Aaron Loup did not throw. Nick Martinez left the team Saturday to rejoin the Padres, but Singer, Kyle Freeland and Merrill Kelly are among the starters who should be available as relievers against Cuba, assuming Miles Mikolas is retained to start the potential finale.
As crazy as it sounds, the regular season looms as a disappointment. The competition in the WBC is pure. The atmosphere in Miami is unique. The roof at loanDepot Park is closed, making the blaring music and roaring fans even louder. Kyle Schwarber said he’s never been part of a game in March with such electricity. Pressly added, “It almost makes me want to go play in Winter Ball and see how rowdy these fans are.”
It’s exhausting. That’s exciting. And it’s not over yet.
(Top photo: Eric Espada / Getty Images)