PHOENIX -- Whew. Thanks to David Wright, the United States avoided the most embarrassing moment in American baseball since the White Sox wore those hideous short pants.
After losing to Mexico on Friday night, Team USA found itself trailing Italy in the fifth inning Saturday night. Despite a lineup that included three MVPs and seven All-Stars, the country that invented the game was losing to such famous names as Luca Panerati, Marco Grifantini, Lorenzo Avagnina, and, for all I know, Enrico Palazzo.
None of those guys had ever played higher than the Class-A Midwest League, if they had played in America at all (though Palazzo did perform in a major league stadium in "The Naked Gun"), and yet Panerati threw three scoreless innings while Grifantini took a 2-1 lead into the fifth.
A loss to Italy not only would have been downright embarrassing, it would have put the U.S. in a difficult position. The Americans still could have advanced to the second round of the World Baseball Classic in Miami by beating Canada on Sunday, but because of the run-differential tiebreaker rule that confused fans, players, media and quantum physicists -- and also led to an ugly fight between Canada and Mexico -- they would have had to win by at least five earned runs. Given that the U.S. had scored only four runs in its first 13 WBC innings, that could have been an imposing challenge.
Instead, Wright reached down low and slammed a two-out grand slam to give America a commanding lead it would not surrender en route to a 6-2 victory in front of 19,303 fans at Chase Field. The U.S. plays Canada on Sunday, with the winner heading to Miami along with Italy, which had qualified earlier in the day when the Canadians beat Mexico.
"You talk about being able to exhale; that was it," U.S. manager Joe Torre said.
Asked whether he felt good knowing that his team controlled its own destiny and didn't need to worry about a confusing run-differential formula, Torre replied, "I like the fact that we went into tonight's game knowing we controlled our destiny. This way, if you win it, you earn it, and if you don't win, you don't earn it. The Canadian win today certainly was huge for me. I just feel [good] that you don't have to be checking numbers or anything like that."
Of course, the U.S. does have to score at least one run more than Canada to win. Canada is starting Jameson Taillon, the No. 2 pick of the 2010 draft who has never pitched above Double-A. So it still would be rather embarrassing if the U.S., which failed to reach the final round in 2009 and has an 8-8 overall WBC record doesn't get out of the first round while Italy does.
Worse, a loss to Canada would leave the U.S. as the last-place team in Pool D. Last-place finishers in the 2009 WBC had to play their way back into the tournament in WBC qualifiers last fall. Canada, for instance, had to win a qualifier in Regensburg, Germany last September. Whether that would be the same situation for a 2017 WBC hasn't been determined, but if Americans aren't enthusiastic about the tournament now, they would be even less so if forced to qualify alongside countries such as Germany, Israel, South Africa, the Czech Republic and Great Britain.
In other words, if Wright can come up with any more heroics on Sunday, they would be greatly appreciated.
"I think that it's well documented that I really enjoy this tournament," Wright, who played also played in the 2009 WBC, said. "I think it's a great tournament, and it's only going to get bigger and better. I think, as Joe mentioned before, when you put that USA jersey on, you're putting a bulls-eye on your back. Teams want to beat us. That makes it a great atmosphere every time out."
"It's a good feeling just knowing we have a chance to really go to Miami," said second baseman Brandon Phillips, who had two hits and made a terrific back-handed diving stop and throw Saturday. "It feels good. Just the way we played today, it was beautiful. Hopefully, we can take that into the game tomorrow and try to get a win, because we really want this bad. I want to go to Miami. We really want to play for the country. That's what it's all about."
Actually, it's about more than that. To build American enthusiasm, it's also about winning for the country. Otherwise, just imagine the TV ratings for the broadcast from the 2017 Prague qualifying game between the U.S. and Lithuania.