Rosenthal: Trea Turner’s grand slam powers make exciting comeback as USA advances to WBC semifinals

MIAMI – Trea Turner had faced Venezuelan right-hander Silvino Bracho exactly once in his career.

“Go watch the highlight of the at-bat,” he told me just before I interviewed him on FS1.

“Bad?” I asked.

“Too bad,” Turner replied.

The game took place on September 26, 2016, in the ninth inning of a game in which Turner’s former team, the Nationals, trailed the Diamondbacks 14–4. Bracho threw an 82-mph slider. Turner checked his swing. His groundball to first was so weak that he never even ran.

Pretty bad — and Turner’s entire frame of reference when Bracho entered the quarterfinals of the World Baseball Classic on Saturday night with the bases loaded, nobody out in the top of the eighth and Venezuela leading the United States, 7-5.

Trea Turner’s second time against Silvino Bracho was much better for the Phillies shortstop than the first time. (Sam Navarro/USA Today)

Turner, Team USA’s $300 million No. 9 hitter, took a fastball for a strike. He fouled another fastball for strike two. At the time, he was 3-for-13 in the WBC, although one of his hits was a homer. He was still looking for his swing, just as he might in a normal spring training. Down 0-2, he knew he had Mookie Betts and Mike Trout hitting behind him.

Bracho has made just four major-league appearances over the past four seasons. Venezuela manager Omar López needed him to get out after lefty Jose Quijada loaded the bases by walking Tim Anderson, allowed a bloop single by pinch hitter Pete Alonso and hit JT Realmuto. Closer José Alvarado, López said, was unavailable for more than four outs.

Bracho threw Turner a changeup, right over the heart of the plate. This time, Turner didn’t check his swing. Instead, he turned furiously on the court and followed with a majestic one-handed finish. On a night of so many doubts, a night in which reliever Daniel Bard suffered a terrifying loss of control, helping turn a 5-2 lead into a 6-5 deficit, Turner hit the ultimate without a doubt, an indelible grand sludge.

“I feel like I was blacked out,” Turner said.

He was not alone.

“I saw about 35 guys, including the coaches, kind of black,” Team USA manager Mark DeRosa said.

Memories may be hazy for Turner, DeRosa and Co., but those who were conscious will never forget what they saw. Turner leaps toward first base, shaking with excitement and gesturing toward the dugout. He then rounded third with virtually all of Team USA waiting at home plate to celebrate him, the same way Venezuelan and many other foreign teams do.

Major-league clubs are more reserved, emptying the dugout only for walk-offs. But DeRosa, who played in Venezuela for the Leones del Caracas during the 2000-01 offseason, knew Saturday night had to be different. The WBC was down to single elimination. And the sold-out crowd in Miami was sure to be pro-Venezuelan.

DeRosa told his players before the game to bring their passion, match Team Venezuela’s energy, “let it go.” He said if an American player hit a home run, meet him at home plate. Nolan Arenado also spoke and delivered a similar message. Team USA would actually be the road team, Arenado said. It had to create its own energy.

Adam Jones, the 2017 WBC American champion, entered the room after Arenado finished. Pump yourselves up, he told the players. Be louder for your teammates than the crowd will be. Oh, and pump a single if you want, because that’s what your opponent will do.

“We were a little more dead in pool play,” catcher Realmuto said. “But out here it was like they wanted so many fans behind them that we have to come together in our dugout and create as much energy as we can. It was important to have that message before the game and to know what to expect going in.”

Jones wanted the American players to be “dynamic,” and that’s exactly what they were in the first inning, striking out Venezuela starter Martín Pérez with five straight singles to open the game and take a 3-0 guidance. Venezuela’s Luis Arraez answered in the bottom half with the first of his two homers, a two-run shot that gave the first indication that the night could be unusual, even by WBC standards.

Arraez, the AL batting champion last season, has never produced a two-homer game in the majors. Heck, he’s only hit 20 homers in 850 professional games. But as Turner would later put it when talking about Team USA’s own comeback, “When you get punched in the mouth, you’ve got to answer.”

There would be more punches. Many more.

Luis Arraez has never had a two-homer game in the majors. (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

In the fifth, Kyle Tucker hit a home run to restore Team USA’s lead to three runs. Lance Lynn had pitched the first four innings for the US, allowing his only run on Arraez’s homer. DeRosa had a rested bullpen after a day off. And his first choice was Bard, who had allowed four runs in Team USA’s loss to Mexico in pool play but bounced back with a scoreless inning against Colombia.

Bard, 37, has a history of control issues. In 2012, he developed “the thing,” an inability to command the strike zone, which kept him out of the majors from 2014 to 2020. His comeback with the Rockies led to a two-year, $19 million contract extension last July. But out of 152 qualified relievers last season, he still had the 36th highest walk rate.

Bard’s first sign of trouble Saturday night was a five-pitch leadoff walk to Gleyber Torres. Andrés Giménez followed with an infield single. Bard threw a wild pitch to advance the runners. Then came the appearance of the plate, which will be the latest fodder for critics of the WBC, who seem to ignore that unfortunate injuries also occur in spring training games.

Jose Altuve was Bard’s third batter, so DeRosa couldn’t pull him at that point without violating the three-batter minimum. But based on Bard’s history, including his first outing in the tournament, it could be reasonably argued that he should never have batted. An argument can certainly be made that DeRosa should have removed him after he hit Altuve in the right hand with a 96 mph sinker. Bard proceeded to throw a second, run-scoring wild pitch and issued yet another run. He was ultimately charged with four runs.

Why didn’t DeRosa start warming up another reliever the moment Bard issued his leadoff walk? The manager said that under the restrictions imposed by major league clubs, he has to pitch once a reliever steps up. Still, even with limited flexibility, DeRosa shouldn’t have risked an elimination game slipping away.

The Astros will provide more information on Altuve’s condition Sunday, but he left the park with his thumb wrapped, and the initial fear is that the finger is broken. López, the Astros’ first base coach, said he was “very concerned,” about Altuve, “deeply concerned.” Venezuela took the lead after Altuve was hit. But the injury to Altuve was so disturbing, López said, “the whole dugout kind of died.”

Jose Altuve left the park with his thumb wrapped (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

In the same way that Edwin Díaz’s nasty knee injury took its toll on Puerto Rico’s stunning upset of the Dominican Republic, the injury to Altuve took some of the shine off what DeRosa called “one of the greatest games I’ve been a part of.” However, the American players were still buzzing as they left the park, in disbelief at what they had experienced. Audience. The noise. Grand slam by Turner, and scoreless innings by Devin Williams and Ryan Pressly to preserve the win.

“(The Royals’) Brady Singer asked me what the playoffs are like,” said American reliever Adam Ottavino, who has played in eight different postseason series for four different clubs. “I was like, I don’t even know if they’re like this. It was the best atmosphere I’ve been in. It was just so much fun to be a part of, even though we would have lost it.”

Realmuto, echoing Ottavino’s thoughts, even sent a subtle message to those who chose not to participate. “I can’t believe anybody would rather stay in spring training than play in a game like that,” Realmuto said. “So much pride on the line. So much fun. It was clear to both teams how much that game meant.”

But for Team USA to defend its WBC title, it needs to win two more matches that could be just as intense. The first will be Sunday night’s semi-final against Cuba, with Adam Wainwright starting against Roenis Elías. The other would be against the winner of the Mexico-Japan semifinal in Tuesday’s championship game.

DeRosa used six relievers against Venezuela, but Kendall Graveman and Aaron Loup no-hit. Nick Martinez left the team Saturday to rejoin the Padres, but Singer, Kyle Freeland and Merrill Kelly are among the starters who should be available in relief against Cuba, assuming Miles Mikolas is held back to start a potential finale.

As crazy as it sounds, the regular season looms as a slump. The competition in the WBC is clean. The atmosphere in Miami is unique. The roof is closed at loanDepot Park, making the blaring music and roaring fans even louder. Kyle Schwarber said he had never been a part of a game in March with such electricity. Pressly added, “It almost makes me want to play winter ball and see how rowdy these fans get.”

It’s exhausting. It is exciting. And it’s not over yet.

(Top photo: Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: