MIAMI – Trea Turner had faced Venezuelan righty Silvino Bracho exactly once in his career.
“Go watch the highlight of the bat,” he told me right before I interviewed him on FS1.
“Bad?” I asked.
“So bad,” Turner replied.
The game occurred in the ninth inning of a September 26, 2016 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 ground ball to first was so weak that he never even got a run.
Pretty bad — and Turner’s entire frame of reference when Bracho entered Saturday night’s World Baseball Classic quarterfinals with the bases loaded, none in the top of the eighth and Venezuela leading the U.S. 7-5.
Turner, Team USA’s $300 million No. 1 player, took the fastball to No. 1. He broke another fastball for the second strike. At the time, he was 3-13 in the WBC, although one of his hits was a homer. He was still looking for his swing, just like in regular spring training. 0-2, he knew Mookie Betts and Mike Trout were hitting behind him.
Bracho has played only four games in the main league in the last four seasons. Venezuela manager Omar López needed him out after lefty Jose Quijada loaded the bases by walking Tim Anderson, allowing pinch hitter Pete Alonso on a bloop single and striking out JT Realmuto. Closer José Alvarado, López said, was unavailable for more than four outs.
Bracho threw Turner’s changeup right over the heart of the plate. This time, Turner didn’t check his swing. Instead, he turned on the court in a rage and followed through with a majestic one-handed volley. In doubt on a night when reliever Daniel Bard lost a frightening control to help turn a 5-2 lead into a 6-5 loss, Turner hit the ultimate no-doubt, indelible grand slam.
“I feel like I blacked out,” Turner said.
He wasn’t alone.
“I saw about 35 guys, including the coaches, black out,” 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, gesturing toward the dugout. Then round three and practically the entire USA team was waiting at home to celebrate with him, as the Venezuelans and many other foreign teams do.
The major league clubs are more reserved and only clear the dugout for the exit. But DeRosa, who played in Venezuela for the Leones del Caracas during the 2000-2001 offseason, knew Saturday night had to be different. The WBC fell to one elimination. And the sold-out crowds in Miami were certainly Venezuelan.
DeRosa told his players before the game to bring their passion, to match Team Venezuela’s energy, to “let it go.” He said if a US player hits a home run, meet him at home plate. Nolan Arenado also spoke, delivering a similar message. Team USA would effectively be a road team, Arenado said. It should create its own energy.
Adam Jones, the 2017 WBC champion of the United States, entered the room after Arenado finished. Pump yourself up, he told the players. Be louder for your teammates than the crowd. Oh, and pump a single if you want, because that’s what your opponent will do.
“We were a little more dead in the pool games,” catcher Realmuto said. “But out here, it looked like they have 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 get that message before the game and know what to expect.
Jones wanted the U.S. players to be “dynamic,” and that’s exactly what they were in the first inning, knocking off Venezuelan starter Martín Pérez with five straight singles to open the game and take a 3-0 lead. Venezuela’s Luis Arraez responded in the bottom half with the first of his two homers, a two-run shot that provided the first indication that the night might be unusual, even by WBC standards.
Arraez, the AL hitting champion last season, has never produced two homers in the majors. He has hit just 20 homers in 850 professional games. But as Turner later said, talking about Team USA’s own comeback, “When you get punched in the mouth, you have to fight back.”
There would be more punches. Many more.
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 USA, allowing his only runs in Arraez’ home game. After the day off, DeRosa was rested. 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 had 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 return 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-point lead over Gleyber Torres. Andrés Giménez followed with an infield single. Bard made a wild pitch to advance the runners. Then came the appearance at the plate, which will be the latest fodder for the WBC’s critics, who seem to be ignoring the fact that the unfortunate injury also occurs in spring training games.
Jose Altuve was Bard’s third batter, so DeRosa couldn’t pull him at that point without violating the three-strikeout requirement. But based on Bard’s history, including his first tournament, there’s a fair argument to be made that he should never have pitched. One could definitely argue that DeRosa should have removed him after he hit Altuve in the right hand with a 96 mph sinker. Bard threw another, run-scoring wild pitch and walked again. He was eventually charged for four runs.
Why didn’t DeRosa start warming up the other reliever the moment Bard started his leadoff? The head coach said that under the restrictions set by major league clubs, when a reliever goes up, he has to go on the field. Still, even with limited flexibility, DeRosa shouldn’t have risked the Playoffs.
The Astros will release more information on Altuve’s condition on 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’s hit. But Altuve’s injury was so concerning, López said, “the whole dugout died.”
Just as Edwin Díaz’s gruesome knee injury contributed to Puerto Rico’s stunning upset of the Dominican Republic, Altuve’s injury took a toll on what DeRosa said was “one of the biggest games I’ve been a part of.” However, the US players were still buzzing when they left the park, incredulous at what they had experienced. The crowd. Sound. A 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 USA reliever Adam Otavino, who has appeared in eight different postseason series with four different clubs. “I was like, I don’t even know if they’re like that. It was the best atmosphere I’ve been in. It was so much fun to be a part of, even if we lost it.”
Echoing Ottavino’s thoughts, Realmuto 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. “A lot of pride in the line. So much fun. It was clear to both teams how much this game meant.
However, for Team USA to successfully defend their WBC title, they will need to win two more games that could be just as intense. The first is Sunday night’s semi-final against Cuba, with Adam Wainwright starting Roenis Elías. The other would be the winner of the Mexico-Japan semifinal in Tuesday’s championship game.
DeRosa used six relievers against Venezuela, but Kendall Graveman and Aaron Loup were unable to score. Nick Martinez left the team Saturday to rejoin the Padres, but Singer, Kyle Freeland and Merrill Kelly are the starters who should be in relief against Cuba, assuming Miles Mikolas is held out to start a potential finale.
As crazy as it sounds, the Main Series looms as a disappointment. The competition in the WBC is clean. Miami’s atmosphere is unique. The roof of LainaDepot Park is closed, which makes the blasting music and the whirring of the fan even louder. Kyle Schwarber said he had never been in a March with such electricity. Pressly added, “Almost makes me want to go play winter ball and see how awkward these fans get.”
It’s exhausting. It’s refreshing. And it’s not over yet.
(Top photo: Eric Espada/Getty Images)