We've had a brawl, we've had upsets, we've had dramatic late-inning rallies and, thanks to one big swing from David Wright, we now get a monumental showdown between bitter enemies Canada and the United States to stay alive in the World Baseball Classic.
OK, maybe it's not quite Sidney Crosby and the Canadians taking on Ryan Miller and the Americans in the 2010 gold-medal hockey game at the Vancouver Olympics, and maybe Canada and the U.S. aren't exactly enemies on the diamond, but Sunday's game at Chase Field in Phoenix is probably the biggest baseball game for Canadians since the Blue Jays won their second straight World Series in 1993.
Baseball fans in the U.S. are still warming up to the whole idea of this tournament, and while a major goal is to help increase popularity of the sport in countries such as Brazil and China and Italy and the Netherlands, don't be fooled: The organizers want U.S. fans to get as passionate about the World Baseball Classic as those in Japan and Latin America. In large part because second-round games will be held in Miami, with the semifinals and finals in San Francisco, and the organizers want sold-out ballparks -- something more likely to happen if the U.S. keeps advancing.
With that possibly in mind, the U.S. was given a soft pool. While the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico were all placed together in Pool C, the U.S. drew lighter-weights Mexico, Canada and Italy. But when Italy beat Mexico and Canada, and then Mexico upset the U.S. on Friday night, it suddenly put pressure on the U.S. to win its final two games of pool play. Joe Torre's squad was actually helped when Canada beat Mexico earlier Saturday -- a game that featured a bench-clearing brawl in the ninth inning -- meaning the Americans now controlled their destiny.
That destiny took a turn for the worse when the surprising Italians took a 2-0 lead against Ryan Vogelsong, who didn't have his usual excellent fastball command. Most of the Italian players are from the U.S., including big leaguers Anthony Rizzo, Chris Denorfia and Nick Punto, but cleanup hitter Alex Liddi of the Mariners was born and raised in Italy and 23-year-old starting pitcher Luca Panerati is an Italian who played a few years in the Reds system, topping out in A-ball. Panerati nevertheless shut down the U.S. with his 86 mph fastball and offspeed pitches, leaving after three scoreless innings; he can tell his grandkids someday about the time he shut down a lineup of major league All-Stars. But the U.S. rallied with five runs in the fifth inning, capped by Wright's two-out grand slam off Matt Torra, an American who pitched in Triple-A for Tampa Bay’s organization last year.
That 6-2 win means U.S. versus Canada, winners move on to Miami, losers go home (or back to spring training). Considering the way this tournament has gone -- Italy advancing, Venezuela out after losing its first two games, 2009 runner-up South Korea failing to advance out of the first round, the Netherlands beating Cuba in a second-round game -- don't count out the Canadians.
First, their lineup has some guys you've heard of: Former MVPs Joey Votto and Justin Morneau. Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders went 4-for-4 in the 10-3 win over Mexico. The lineup was hurt by Brett Lawrie's injury in spring training and we’ll have to see if Pete Orr and Rene Tosoni, ejected after the brawl, will be suspended or not; the pitching is thin without guys such as Ryan Dempster, Scott Diamond and Erik Bedard participating. Still, Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon will start against the U.S., and while he hasn't reached the major leagues yet (he pitched in Double-A last year), he has major league stuff, ranking as Keith Law No. 20 preseason prospect. He's certainly capable of shutting down the U.S. lineup for his 65-pitch limit. After that, however, Canada's pitching thins out in a hurry, with Brewers closer John Axford and Phillies reliever Phillippe Aumont the two biggest names in the bullpen.
The U.S. will start Derek Holland, a good strategic move by Torre to get the lefty Holland in there to try to neutralize Votto, Morneau and Saunders. With Ross Detwiler throwing four scoreless innings of relief against Italy, that means the U.S. bullpen is well-rested. Look for Torre to use lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Glen Perkins against the middle of the lineup in the middle innings, and he still has Craig Kimbrel waiting to get some action.
The U.S. will be heavy favorite to advance. To use another Olympic hockey analogy, the Americans are the Soviets. Do the Canadians have a miracle in store? I'll be watching to find out. After all, it's about time we settle this border war with Canada.