SAN DIEGO -- Felix Hernandez missed nearly two months last season due to an injured right calf. So Seattle Mariners staff, teammates and fans must have been concerned Wednesday night when he felt pain in the upper part of his right leg after fielding a grounder in the first inning of the World Baseball Classic game between Venezuela and Team USA.
Fortunately, Hernandez stayed in the game and went on the pitch five scoreless innings. Said Venezuela manager Omar Vizquel, “Thank God he made a couple pitches and said he felt pretty good.’’
The risk of injury is why many major league teams don’t want their players competing in the WBC. Yet injuries occur in spring training, too, as we saw when Colorado’s Ian Desmond had his hand broken by a pitch in a Cactus League game Sunday. Which is why players in the WBC don't have any greater concerns about getting hurt in the tournament.
“You can get hurt in your spring training game just as easily as you can get hurt here,’’ Team USA and Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said. “So I throw that out the window -- because you see Ian Desmond, unfortunately, broke his hand. That’s spring training. We’re here playing, and we’re, knock on wood, staying healthy.
“Injuries happen. It doesn’t matter where you’re at. You could fall down the stairs.’’
“This is a sport where injuries happen,’’ Miller said. “You take care of yourself as well as you can. You prepare yourself for everything and you go out there and play the game.’’
Despite what Jones, Miller and others say, USA manager Jim Leyland -- a managerial veteran with more than two decades of experience in the major leagues -- said injuries are more likely in the WBC due to a more intense level of competition when playing for your country as opposed to getting ready for the season. As Puerto Rico’s Javier Baez said, it can be “a war’’ on the field in the WBC.
“Honestly, you're asking the players to amp it up a little bit more … for this venue than they would in their normal spring training,’’ Leyland said. “Spring training is more of a lengthy process where they just kind of go at their own pace. So it can be a little dangerous because you’re asking them to amp it up a little bit quicker than they normally would. That’s the one thing that makes you a little nervous.’’
Leyland said the chance of injury puts a lot of pressure on WBC managers when they are in charge of some other team’s players.
“Our No. 1 goal is to send these guys back healthy,’’ he said. “Hopefully it could be in a winning situation, send them back happy. But to be honest with you, my biggest goal is to send them all back healthy. I think that’s the most important thing.’’
Venezuela has had several players hurt this WBC, including Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez in a home plate collision with Royals teammate Drew Butera (though he expects to be ready for Opening Day). Marlins outfielder Martin Prado and Diamondbacks pitcher Silvino Bracho are out with hamstring injuries while pitcher Robert Suarez (who plays in Japan) has a serious elbow injury. Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera left Thursday’s game with tightness in his back, though he might play Saturday.
Still, Vizquel said that while the WBC games are more intense, that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more injuries here than anywhere else.
“It’s more of an issue if you don’t prepare,’’ Vizquel said. “I think every player here is responsible for what they do, and they know the commitments. Obviously, when you push your body to a different level, you have to be ready for that. So you have to prepare a lot earlier if you want to compete.
“If you’re not ready, you’re going to be open to injuries," Vizquel continued. "If you’re 100 percent, you don’t have to worry about it.’’
Dominican Republic manager Tony Pena said the first round is riskier than the others, particularly for pitchers.
“They’re not in their optimal condition, but as soon as you progress with the rounds, you’ll notice that the pitchers are in better shape," Pena said.
Those who know they will be on the WBC team, he added, start preparing their bodies as early as November to be in top shape.
Miller noted that injuries are a concern for pitchers in the WBC because they need to be focused on throwing hard and getting batters out rather than working on various pitches as is the case in spring training. Still, there are strict pitch limits in the WBC -- 65 pitches in the first round, 80 in the second and 95 in the final round. If a pitcher throws 30 or more pitches, he must take a day off, and if he throws 50 or more, he must take four days in a row off. And no one can throw three consecutive days.
Furthermore, there is a designated pitcher pool, which allows teams to drop and add hurlers as the WBC progresses, further reducing any strain on arms.
Kim Ng, vice president of operations for MLB, said that to lessen injury risks the league makes sure that the international federations and the major league teams communicate well about players “so that hopefully their [training] programs are being followed.’’
U.S. and Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich said he doesn’t think about the possibility of injuries when he plays.
“Never,’’ Yelich said. “You prepare your body the same way for a spring training game as these games. Try to make sure you’re loose. Obviously, injuries do happen and it’s unfortunate, but this is the most fun I’ve had playing baseball in my career. It’s not something I would ever want to pass up. It’s unfortunate there are injuries and it is a discussion, but I’m not worried.’’
While injury risks and regular-season preparations have prompted many American players to forgo competing in the WBC, perhaps that will change. Two-time MVP Mike Trout, arguably the best player in the majors, avoided this year’s WBC for personal reasons but said he will probably play in the future.
Regardless of whether the chance of injury is higher, lower or the same as spring training, Miller said the WBC experience is a good thing heading into the regular season.
“That’s one way to look at it,’’ Miller said. “I think this is a chance to walk away from this experience and feel like I’ve gotten better and not just gotten ready.’’