PHOENIX -- Up close, with an audience chanting its mind, the World Baseball Classic doesn't seem to need Team USA.
On home turf, the U.S. heard more love for its NAFTA partners during this weekend's games. Even the team's second baseman appreciated the vibe.
"When we played Mexico, it was fun, it was fun, man, even though we lost the game," Brandon Phillips said. "It felt like we were in Mexico. I never played winter ball, so I loved it."
Mexican partisanship in Arizona might not have been surprising, but when Canada met the U.S. in an elimination game Sunday, north-of-the-border fervor held a decided advantage at Chase Field. Only when the game's country of origin stood five outs from first-round elimination did the chants of "USA" begin seriously disrupting the noise from thousands of ardent souls on an afternoon's sabbatical from hockey.
But viewed from even the slightest distance, Team USA's 9-4 comeback win meant as much to the WBC as the background in a family vacation photo. Shedding the U.S. in the first round, especially this year, would have been like cropping out the Grand Canyon or Mount Rushmore.
The team doesn't have to reach the finals. It hasn't advanced that far in either of the two previous tournaments, and yet the event lives on. The final of the 2009 Classic between Japan and South Korea, a 10-inning thriller, satiated any real baseball fan and made yearning for Team USA as pointless as craving catsup on sushi.
But a loss on Sunday would have been devastating for the tournament and MLB. The U.S. team bailed both out in at least three ways:
- A last-place team would, in theory, have to go through a qualifying tournament in 2016 to re-enter the WBC in 2017. The U.S. would have been last if it had lost to Canada. "I heard something about it," third baseman David Wright said, "but I didn't think too much about it because I was planning on winning."
But imagine the reaction of MLB teams, many of them already skittish about lending players to Team USA in spring training, if they had to provide talent for an event that took place shortly after the end of a long season. The roster for the qualifying tournament would be a bunch of minor-league prospects detouring from winter ball. With that possibility looming Saturday, MLB hedged on the rules, saying WBC standards were constantly evolving and that the qualifying demands might change before the 2017 version. But a shift in the rules would have looked like a break for the Americans (the middle-of-North Americans, to be accurate), a blot on the event's reputation, and further evidence of Team USA softness.
- Team USA's absence would have thinned out the crowds and media coverage pretty dramatically at the tournament's next American stop, Miami. Cactus League reporters flocked to Chase Field this weekend. A bracket with Canada and Italy would not have drawn much attention from the Grapefruit League.
- If the Canadian team had advanced, the decision not to suspend anyone after Saturday's brawl with Mexico would have faced considerably more scrutiny than it did. A statement from tournament organizers read: "Because at least one club -- and potentially both -- will not advance to the second round, (WBC, Inc.) has determined that disciplinary measures would not have a meaningful corrective impact."
Team USA might have disagreed if the Canadians' 3-2 lead in the eighth inning had held up. And if another fight of this intensity occurs, the WBC has established a bad precedent.
But for now, the legacy of the brawl is contained to nearly viral video replays proving the passion of the other North Americans brought to this tournament and evidence that baseball's tiresome unwritten rules have been translated into Spanish.
The written rules of the WBC, which call for run differentials to be used as tiebreakers, clearly have not been as thoroughly absorbed. They make bunting to run up a 9-3 score practical rather than an affront to the opponents' pride. Somehow, Mexican manager Rick Renteria did not convey this to his team or bother to explain it after his pitcher had been warned for throwing inside.
Phillips didn't bother sorting out all these details, and he said he didn't know that Team USA faced relegation to a qualifying tournament. He just knew one thing: "If we would have lost today, it would have been an embarrassment to the USA," he said.
In the eighth inning, the U.S. offense came alive. Phillips said he leaned on patriotism and disdain for the Reds' desolate spring-training site at the end. "I said: 'I'm not ready to go back to Goodyear, 'cause there ain't nothing in Goodyear,'" he said. "I'd rather go to Miami."
Phillips should be the sentimental centerpiece of Team USA, often portrayed as indifferent because of the people who have declined to be on the roster at all three WBCs. But Phillips eagerly showed up, and he is incapable of being blasé. He came off the field after Sunday's win waving both arms over his head and talking to the crowd behind the dugout.
He has also has a personal history tying him to international baseball. He served as a batboy for the 1996 Olympics, working with the U.S. and Japanese teams, after he was chosen as one of the 12 best players at Little League tournament.
"That was when I took baseball seriously," he said, "because before then, I was more into basketball and football."
He can rattle off the mementos he still has from the Atlanta Games -- his credential, jersey, a bat, a ball.
"I should get my mom to take a picture of it all when she goes home," he said. "And I'll tweet it out to you."
Oh wait, he said. The whole family is headed to Miami with him now. The picture will have to wait.
It may be delayed through a trip to San Francisco, site of the semis and finals. The results of the first round don't look at all that promising despite the 2-1 record -- a loss to Mexico, needing a grand slam to beat Italy, which has a roster long on players for Rimini and Bologna and Parma and only six currently in MLB, and scoring only two runs through seven innings against Canadian pitchers with light resumes.
But the team has considerable talent, some of it compromised by the need to give players work they're missing in spring training. For example, Joe Torre committed to mound time for three right-handed relievers despite Canada's lefty lineup. The manager also called for three sacrifice bunts in the game, including one in the second inning, when the game was scoreless. It remained scoreless.
The critical eighth inning appeared ready for a fizzle when Ben Zobrist popped out on a bunt attempt with two on and no outs. If the team had lost, this moment would have been cited as evidence that Team USA, unlike the two-time champs from Japan, cannot do the little things that add up to great baseball.
But why try to bunt at all in that situation? Torre had Zobrist in the sixth spot and he said later: "We really don't have a soft spot in the lineup."
Adam Jones came up next and delivered a double to left-center for the lead. The "USA" chants took over Chase Field. This team, such a necessity for the tournament, had the luxury of forgetting the popped-up bunt.