MIAMI -- Because of the split crowd -- much more loudly pro-Puerto Rican at first, but with the U.S. fans increasing in volume as the game got closer and Team USA started to emerge from its coma -- everything that happened at Marlins Park in the late innings of Friday night's game was cheered. Strikes and balls to all sides, every hit by either team, every out, every fly ball for varying reasons. It was confusing, but in the end the effect was kind of neat: an all-encompassing yay.
Puerto Rico won 4-3 to knock the U.S. out of the tournament, and so there will now be some hand-wringing about whether the tournament is constructed poorly or timed poorly or if the U.S. is lacking in passion or commitment and so on. None of those things need to be true in order to explain what happened, however. Over a seven-game series the United States' chances of beating this Puerto Rican team would be quite good, but just one game, well, that's anybody's. Tournament play brings this to the forefront, which makes it frustrating compared to the long talent-rewarding regular baseball season, but also makes it exciting.
In the spirit of the event, it's not as important that the United States lost as it is that Puerto Rico won. And they did so in a manner that few people who were not immediate family members of Nelson Figueroa would have put money on.
The WBC often spotlights familiar faces you haven't seen in a while, and Friday night, that was Figueroa, a soft-throwing righty who essentially defines the term "journeyman." About five years ago, he was sort of a beta version of R.A. Dickey: An extremely nice, smart, quotable pitcher with a good off-field story who achieved some improbable success pitching untraditionally -- though his success did not stick as Dickey's has. It had seemed, after a few rough years, that his run was over at age 38. Maybe not yet, it turns out.
After the game, Joe Torre was asked whether Puerto Rico's "passion and fire" had been an advantage for them (... yes, really) and replied, "No. I think the advantage was Figueroa." Credit obviously also goes to the Puerto Rican hitters, and demerits to the U.S. bullpen, but Figueroa was the pivotal figure. Needless to say, that was not how this game was supposed to go down.
Subsequently asked what Figueroa, whose fastball never topped 87 miles an hour, had done to be so effective against the U.S. over six shut-out innings -- the American bats woke up almost as soon as he left the game -- Torre smiled ruefully and said, "I can't answer that question." Second baseman Brandon Phillips offered, "I could say he kept us off balance. I can say that. He was hitting his spots." Torre said, "I'm sitting next to Maddux during the game, and he basically said it's not the pitch selection, it's where it is. Even though he wasn't overpowering, you know that he had to be throwing the ball where he wanted to."
During the broadcast, the MLB Network's Matt Vasgersian compared Figueroa to a "Puerto Rican Greg Maddux." However good the man's control was Friday, this is, frankly, insane. Figueroa has many admirable qualities -- but if there's one thing in the world he is not, it's a no-doubt Hall of Famer. In fact, that's pretty much where the admirableness comes from.
Born in Brooklyn, of Puerto Rican descent and fluent in Spanish, Figueroa attended Lincoln High School in Coney Island and is a Brandeis graduate (the first ever to reach the majors). He was drafted by the Mets in the 30th round of the 1995 draft, 833rd overall. He debuted in the big leagues in 2000 with the Diamondbacks, had spotty success for the next four years and struggled to stick, eventually putting up a 5.72 ERA in 28 innings for the Pirates in 2004 with a torn rotator cuff. He then kicked around the minors and finally went abroad to find work, pitching for Mexico's Dorados de Chihuahua and then Taiwan's Uni-President Lions.
In 2008, he made it back to the majors with the Mets, becoming a hometown reclamation project and charming the city. He was smart and humble, a local product who had paid his dues and then some, with an exuberant family that came to Shea en masse to cheer him on. He was also an artist and a electrical whiz who repaired computers and various other devices for teammates. But as pleasant a story as it was, it didn't last: He was sent back to the minors, then back to the majors, designated for assignment, back to the minors and so on. He went to Philly, then the Astros, to much the same effect (majors, DFA'd, minors, majors, DFA'd). He signed a minor league deal with the Pirates, then last year with the Blue Jays (released) and the Yankees (released) and the Red Sox. This past December, he signed another minor-league deal, this time with the Diamondbacks. And Friday night, he shut out the Americans, with their lineup dense with All-Star sluggers.
"I have been struggling for many years to show that I can pitch in the Major Leagues," he said. If anything, that's an understatement.
Going in, this looked like a potential bloodbath. Figueroa knew it, too. "I think the fact of the matter is that we were supreme underdogs against that USA lineup," he said. "Myself, I sat up watching MLB Network and hearing all the things that I couldn't do and could do, so it was motivation to show them what kind of a pitcher I was."
And what kind of a pitcher is that?
"I go against the book sometimes. I'm not a guy who throws very hard, but I'll pitch inside. A lot of times they'll sit outside waiting for that breaking ball and they won't get it. So it was a great exhibition of what could be done without having a plus fastball."
If the U.S. team were to face Figueroa 10 times, or 100, how often would they beat him? There's no way to know for sure, of course, but it's in the vicinity of "a lot." Maybe he still hasn't proved, at 38, and 18 years after he was drafted 833rd, that he belongs full-time in the majors. But he certainly belonged last night.
The U.S. leaving the tournament is not necessarily a bad thing for the WBC -- whose point, after all, is to attract international fans -- but it does mean less attention here, and the end of whatever patriotic interest the nation had managed to muster. That's too bad, but it's also an opportunity, for both stories we haven't heard yet and for sequels like Figueroa's.