By Matt Spiegel-
(CBS) When the USA takes on Puerto Rico on Tuesday night in Miami to kick off round two of the World Baseball Classic, I’ll be locked and loaded.
If you’d happened upon the USA-Canada game in a convenient little window on Sunday afternoon, you would be, too.
For the year-round sports fan, synching with baseball’s rhythms and pacing is not an easy adjustment. Drawn out battles between pitcher and batter, with gradual power struggles and subtle shifts of advantage, can crawl for the couch bound. The sensation is multiplied when viewing comes on the heels of, say, the best team in hockey playing a frantic three periods. Everything pales compared to sports at that clip.
So it’s no wonder spring training games are a snooze. They share hallowed space with golf as nap accompaniments for a March afternoon.
WBC games are not sleepy. If spring training is a slow simmer towards early April’s meal, the World Baseball Classic is a flash fry. These games offer genuine baseball tension, in early March, and suddenly your at the sport’s table, knife and fork in hand.
Team USA needed to beat Canada on Sunday, or they would have faced an embarrassing reality; forced to play in and win a four team qualifier tournament in November 2016 before the next WBC. Nothing would make you prouder of your baseball country than relegation with the likes of France, Israel and Thailand.
But, six outs away from disaster, USA rallied, in genuinely thrilling fashion. Adam Jones had a beautiful two-run double to the gap to take the lead in the eight, and round two beckoned.
This thing is far from perfect. There’s a mercy rule. There are pitch counts. Blending high-level competition with an individual’s prep for the season that matters most presents all kinds of issues.
And sometimes they manifest in the games. The Brewers had to give Canadian manager Ernie Whitt permission to use their closer John Axford on Sunday, after he’d pitched Saturday as well. As Canada trailed by a run in the ninth, there was Axford, standing in the bullpen while Whitt went to a far inferior pitcher. That pitcher got in trouble, Axford came in too late, gave up a hit or two, and the game was blown open.
Whitt was waiting for a save situation so as not to abuse Axford, wanting to, in his words to, “do the Brewers a favor.” That’s horrendous managing (he used him anyway!), and an embodiment of a still awkward partnership with MLB.
But consider for a moment the layered drama and pleasurable mental associations for the baseball fan on Sunday, March 10. I’m sitting there dissecting the managerial acumen of both Joe Torre and Ernie Whitt in a game that matters. Meanwhile, the very mention of the longtime Blue Jays catcher took my mind to a grand slam I saw him hit against Lee Smith at Fenway in 1989. Canada second baseman Cale Iorg brought visions of the careers of his father Dane and his uncle Garth. White Sox fans tweeted at me, empowered by a sudden patriotism that surprised them, for once cheering a Joe Mauer base hit.
It’s baseball, with all its creeping drama and conversational avenues. And this thing has kicked that vibe in early.
A semifinals packed with heavyweights would be good for the event. Give me the USA and the Dominican Republic on one side, and Cuba-Japan on the other. The mandate of the WBC was/is to increase visibility of the game globally, and previous matchups from the Far East in the finals have been helpful. But the event now needs traction here, and the emblematic presence of the US in the final would have value.
When Steve Cishek got the USA out of a jam in the bottom of the eighth on Sunday, preserving a hard-earned, one-run lead, he let out a scream and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound. Many players said no to participation in this thing, not wanting their annual routines affected. But the ones that said yes are playing at a high level and with great passion.
That makes it real, and that makes it fun.
Game on for baseball fans, three weeks earlier than usual.
Listen to Matt Spiegel on 670 The Score weekdays from 9am–1pm CT on The McNeil & Spiegel Show