PHOENIX -- Down to its final five outs Sunday afternoon, Team USA trailed Canada by 3-2. A loss not only would mark America's worst showing in the World Baseball Classic, it would leave them as the last-place team in Pool D. Under the current format, that would force the United States to win a qualifying tournament, perhaps in Europe and maybe even behind former Iron Curtain, to even compete in the next WBC.
But Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips foresaw an even worse fate if the U.S. did not rally against the Canadians. As he stood in the dugout while the spring shadows crept across the Chase Field diamond, these were his thoughts: "Somebody's got to step up, because I'm not ready to go back to Goodyear, because there's nothing in Goodyear. I would rather go to Miami. You know what I'm saying?"
Well, the chamber of commerce probably won't use that for a slogan in Goodyear, which is the spring training home for the Reds and Cleveland Indians. The town of 65,000 is located on the far western edge of the Phoenix area, where the most notable feature probably is the graveyard for mothballed airplanes that flanks the baseball complex. South Beach, it is not.
Fortunately for Phillips, someone did step up Sunday. Baltimore's Adam Jones doubled home two runs to give Team USA the lead in the eighth inning and Kansas City's Eric Hosmer added a three-run double in the ninth to blow open the 9-4 U.S. victory over Canada. The U.S. and Italy advance to the second round of the WBC in Miami with the hopes of continuing on to San Francisco for the championship round.
"That's why we're here," Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer said. "The guys agreed to play here, and we want to get there and win. This is the next stop. It's nice to be going to Miami instead of back to our spring training sites."
That should be the prevailing attitude about the WBC for both participating and non-participating players, as well as general managers, managers and fans. Not only does the WBC help build the sport grow globally, it is if far more entertaining than the usual dull, repetitive spring training routine.
Yes, there are issues with the WBC. The U.S. has a very good, deep, well-rounded team but it doesn't have the best possible starting rotation it could because some top pitchers such as Justin Verlander declined to play. Also, U.S. manager Joe Torre is managing the WBC games with spring training routines and promises in mind. He talked Sunday about making sure his relievers got their work in and avoiding throwing them on back-to-back days, and acknowledged he briefly worried about running out of pitchers. Which is not the best way to manage when you need to win.
"We still have to be mindful of the promise I made to take care of these players and make sure they get back and get ready to start the season," Torre explained. "So we're still going to do the same things, try not to repeat with the bullpen. We have to think the same way. We have to get at-bats, we have to get guys in the games."
WBC eligibility requirements seem a little vague as well. Arizona reliever David Hernandez originally was on Mexico's provisional roster because his great-grandparents were Mexican. When he was left off the final roster last week, he joined the U.S. to replace injured reliever Chris Perez and allowed a run in the eighth inning Sunday.
And that eighth inning is what is so great about the WBC and why it should continue despite the resistance of some general managers and the lack of enthusiasm of some players.
The four days of Pool D here provided excitement, drama, controversy, violence (Saturday's wild Canada-Mexico fight) and plenty of tension. The 22,000-some Canadian and U.S. fans who weren't chanting their countries' names were steadily devouring their cuticles throughout the eighth. That was the case both before Jones delivered his key double -- "Wearing USA across your chest is a little bit different than 'Baltimore,'" he said -- and again after when Canada rallied for a run and loaded the bases with two out in the bottom of the inning.
Miami reliever Steve Cishek, however, got Canada's Tim Smith to slap a grounder to second base that Phillips smothered to end the inning.
"If I didn't make that play, we would probably still be playing now or they would have the W," Phillips said. "It was a key diving play and I'm surprised I made it. If it not taken that hop and stayed up, I would not have caught it. I looked at my glove and said, 'Yes! This is a game-saver.'"
And perhaps a WBC-changer for the U.S. Team USA scored four runs in the top of the ninth with Hosmer's double off John Axford putting the game away and saving America the humiliation of getting knocked out of the WBC while Italy advanced to the second round.
"It would have been embarrassing to me," Phillips said. "I can't speak for anybody else but for me it would have been embarrassing. I feel like this is the USA, where baseball started. We have to represent our country, and if we had lost, we wouldn't have done our job.
"We've got to go out there and try to be the first American team to go out and win the WBC."