LOS ANGELES -- When Adam Jones reached behind the wall at San Diego’s Petco Park this past weekend to rob a late-inning home run, he might have brought back more than a baseball.
It is likely that the Team USA center fielder hauled in some eyeballs to the final games of the World Baseball Classic, as the semifinals of the tournament continue Tuesday with the United States facing Japan.
The United States’ victory over the Dominican Republic is what got the team to Los Angeles for a winner-take-all trip to the finals, and Jones’ catch in Saturday’s deciding pool game also gave the tournament a look-what-you-have-been-missing moment.
It came as no surprise that on Monday, Jones was still being asked about his seventh-inning robbery of Baltimore Orioles teammate Manny Machado. With the U.S. clinging to a two-run lead, Jones broke back on Machado’s drive and appeared to get half of his body above the low center-field wall to make the memorable catch.
“I play 27 outs. It's just how I play,” Jones said when asked to relive the moment. “It doesn't matter how I'm feeling -- I'm going to give it my all until that game is over. I've seen it all over SportsCenter and all the various outlets of the catch, and it was great. But that was last game. Now I need to do something to help my team win against Japan.”
One more victory would give the United States a berth in the WBC championship game against Puerto Rico, which defeated the Netherlands on Monday in the other semifinal.
The United States has never advanced beyond the semifinals in the previous three WBC tournaments and has played in the semifinals just once, in 2009, when Team USA lost to Japan. Meanwhile, the U.S. will be facing a Japanese team that won the first two WBC tournaments, in 2006 and 2009.
Japan’s roster has just one major leaguer, Nori Aoki, so the expectations for what the United States will see Tuesday are about style more than name recognition.
“What I know about them is that they play a very clean game -- fundamentally sound,” Jones said. “They move runners over. They hit behind the runners. They bunt. They don't make many errors fielding. They are a very, very fundamentally sound team.”
Team USA first baseman Eric Hosmer was teammates with Aoki in Kansas City, but that’s about where the familiarity with Team Japan ends.
“I think it's a team that's going to capitalize on another team making mistakes,” Hosmer said. “So we just want to stick to playing our game. We know the type of game that we can play, and we feel good when we play those games, and we feel that we'll be successful on most nights if we can execute the things we're going to try to execute. So that's basically what we're going to try to stick to.”
U.S. manager Jim Leyland will send Washington Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark to the mound in Tuesday’s win-or-go-home game. Roark has just one appearance in the WBC so far, and it was not especially pretty. He gave up three runs on three hits over 1 1/3 relief innings in a March 11 defeat to the Dominican Republic.
When he last started a game that mattered, Roark pitched in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, in which the Nationals defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Nationals eventually lost the series.
The right-hander was comfortable calling Tuesday’s start the biggest of his baseball career.
“So far, yes, I'd say so, with the single-elimination and everything,” he said. “Go out there, and leave it all out on the field.”
With barely more than an inning of work in the past two weeks, Roark said he has tried to stay sharp with throwing sessions in the bullpen. He added that he has been staying mentally focused on games, “just watching how the hitters react and just watching and trying to learn as much as I can from all these guys.”
Roark will pitch opposite Japan’s Tomoyuki Sugano, who has a 5.40 ERA in two starts. The right-hander gave up one run in 4 1/3 innings as Japan won a first-round decision against Cuba. Then he gave up four runs in four innings against the same Cuban team in the second round. He offered his feelings heading into Tuesday’s elimination game:
“Really, it's finally here. That's how I feel,” Sugano said through an interpreter. “[On Tuesday], for sure we'll win and advance to the final. That's how I feel.”
If there is anything Team USA knows about Sugano, it's that he is confident.
“Well, obviously, I don't know a whole lot about him, to be honest with you,” Leyland said. “I saw him pitch on television when I was watching this event. You know, he's obviously very good. He wouldn't be pitching this game if he wasn't.
“The thing that stuck out in my mind was he hasn't walked anybody. He's obviously got very good control. We're getting some information from the people that have seen him. And he's obviously a very good pitcher, or he wouldn't be representing Japan.”
If Team USA is worried about facing an unknown in such a key game, it was not evident at their Monday workout. During batting practice, Jones shouted a request from the field for some hip-hop music. About a minute later, the playlist was changed. Jones continues to go to great lengths to get what he and Team USA need.
“I've been to the ALCS, and those were obviously my biggest games because obviously the magnitude and what it meant for MLB,” Jones said. “But aside from MLB and the WBC, this is the most important game that we're playing outside of our culture of our own team. So it's special.
“I'm glad that we've garnered more attention as the USA team, and we've got more people on our back now, more people on board with the WBC," Jones said. "A lot of people are saying this is good and bad for the league, but I think when USA is still in it, I think people jump on board, and I think that we can do something special.”