PHOENIX — Go ahead, admit it. You care about the WBC, don't you?
You may not want to care, you may think the whole event is a waste of your time and your team's pitching, but you're a little curious about what's going to happen this week in Miami, aren't you? How can you not be if you like baseball?
As easy as it is to focus on who isn't playing for Team USA, Joe Torre's team is off to Marlins Park, thanks to a dramatic rescue by Adam Jones in a wild elimination game against Canada on Sunday. They'll face the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and always-powerful Italy to see who can advance to San Francisco to play Japan and either Cuba or the Netherlands.
Canada was five outs away from getting there. Had Brewers setup man Jim Henderson been able to hang on to a lead, the U.S. would have finished last in Pool D and possibly been forced to get into the 2017 event via a qualifier, as Canada, Spain, Brazil and Chinese Taipei did this year.
Oh, the horror!
But Jones kept his head, as he did often in helping the Orioles win 29 of 38 one-run games last season, and the United States rallied for a face-saving victory. Joe Mauer's leadoff single and Jones' line double to deep left-center, past center fielder Tyson Gillies, were the keys to a three-run rally that pushed the U.S. to a 9-4 victory before a noisy, wildly divided crowd of 22,425 at Chase Field.
Jones was 2-for-26 in the playoffs in October, but this time he delivered the game-changing hit. He said some close friends told him he looked tight and that "if you just took one breath, you probably would have relaxed a little bit.''
He learned his lesson. "As (the game) progressed, I think we just were resilient, everybody was trying to get the big hit,'' Jones said. "Not necessarily to try and hit a home run or anything like that, but put the ball in play and live with the results.''
This is the third time the WBC has been played, and Japan is looking like a very good bet to win it for the third time. While the U.S. never has reached the championship game, compiling a 9-8 record, it also never has been sent home after the opening pool. That was perilously close to happening, with Canada needing only two clean innings from two Brewers, Henderson and John Axford.
"It would have been embarrassing, man, to me,'' said Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips, whose diving stop in the eighth inning helped killed a Canada rally. "I can't speak for my teammates, but I would have been embarrassed. I feel like the United States is where baseball started, we have to represent our country. … We have to be the first (U.S.) team to win the WBC.''
The U.S. somehow led for only seven of 27 innings against Mexico, Italy and Canada — and, in fairness, the stealth assassins in the classic Italy uniforms were going through the motions Saturday night, having won Thursday and Friday to secure an early trip to Miami — but now gets a fresh start, with back-to-back wins under its belt.
"This was very similar to a playoff atmosphere,'' three-time batting champion Joe Mauer said. "Sometimes in the playoffs, the first couple of games you're maybe a little nervous. It felt good to get out there, get going today. Hopefully we can carry that to Miami. … Guys are here not to be here but because they want to win.''
While Canada had beaten the U.S. in the 2006 WBC, this was considered the biggest game ever for our northern neighbors, given the chance to kick the Americans to the curb. Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon (a product of suburban Houston with Canadian lineage) set a promising tone by outpitching the Rangers' Derek Holland until the 65-pitch limit reared its head.
It was the third game in a row that a U.S. starter was outpitched, including the work of Mexico's Yovani Gallardo and Italy's Luca Panerati (somebody sign him, please!), and Canada grabbed leads of 2-0 on a Michael Saunders homer and 3-2 on an Adam Loewen single.
In the end, the game was too long for the weaker team, as baseball games often are. Almost everyone went home happy for one reason or another, as they had after dramatic WBC games in cities like Fukuoka, Taichung, San Juan and Tokyo.
Is the WBC the American League Championship Series? Hardly. But for a lot of players it's the ride of a lifetime and it is compelling baseball. The festival moves on to Miami and then to San Francisco, where Japan will arrive with Greg Maddux clone Kenta Maeda and powerful right-hander Masahiro Tanaka ready to take on the world.
Team USA would love to get its crack at them.