USA advances from WBC Pool C in Superstar-Spangled fashion

PHOENIX – It was a nervous affair from start to finish, but Team USA reached the knockout stage of the World Baseball Classic. Short of big leagues and star power, Colombia nevertheless held off the USA thanks to excellent defense and smart discipline. But American stars Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, whose quiet opening weekend of the tournament had caused some concern, came out strong when the tournament was on the line, leading the way to a 3–2 victory.

The US advances to the no. 2 seed in Pool C and will face Venezuela on Friday in the quarterfinals in Miami. Colombia, who upset Julio Urías and group winners Mexico in their opening pool game, were unable to deliver on their early promise after defeats to Canada and Great Britain. After entering Thursday with a realistic chance of qualifying, Colombia not only goes home early, but finished last in the pool and will be relegated to the qualifying tournament for the next WBC.

Colombia had its moments. Gio Urshela made a spectacular play in the first inning to turn a surefire RBI double off the bat of Nolan Arenado into a double play that preserved a scoreless first inning, the first of two Twins starts in the game. And the Americans’ main weakness early in the tournament, starting innings, fared little better with Merrill Kelly righty for the Diamondbacks. In three innings of work, Kelly threw just 36 of his 61 pitches for hits, walked two (including Jorge Alfaro, who needs a few) and allowed four hits. Columbia loaded the bases with one out in the second, but couldn’t get a run across. A short time later, they took a brief 2-1 lead on a double by Oscar Mercado, a sacrifice fly by Urshela and doubles by Alfaro and Reynaldo Rodriguez.

But there was no answer for Betts and Trout. The two Los Angeles-based MVPs went a combined 5-for-8. Betts scored two of the three American runs, and Trout accounted for all three American RBIs. They opened the scoring in the top of the third when Betts singled and advanced on a wild pitch. Trout, facing a tough shift, did every wacky announcer proud by shortening up and driving a soft but well-placed liner through the hole vacated by reassigned second baseman Fabian Pertuz.

Two innings later, Betts and Trout were at it again. After a walk with the opening of no. 8 man Will Smith, Betts singled and advanced to second when left fielder Jesus Marriaga attempted to field Smith as he advanced to third. Another Trout Liner followed two pitches later, putting the USA back in front and providing the final margin of victory.

Trout played just once in the MLB postseason, and when he did he was unremarkable – 1 for 12 with three walks and a home run – as the heavily favored Angels were swept by Kansas City in the 2014 ALDS. In basketball, a player of Trout’s quality put on a display that reminded the world of his prowess every week or two. But baseball is so rigid in its structure that it cannot dominate a game in the same way under normal circumstances.

This was an exception. In a do-or-die game, Trout was at his spectacular best, and not just at the plate. His quickness on the 3-pointer in the first game was amazing, his center game flawless. Colombia needed to win by several runs to prevent the USA from advancing, but despite leading by a point and a half, at no point were they able to pull ahead. That might not have been the case if Trout hadn’t run down a Meibrys Viloria in the gap to end the third and put the last serious Colombian threat to bed.

After that game, Kelly retired and another strength of the American team, its bullpen, brought the game home. As much as the USA rotation has been a concern, the relief corps, at least on paper, is as good as any in the tournament. When the U.S. have started to make big innings, they are mostly either starters or relievers with multi-revenue bunts on the mound. After Mark DeRosa pulled Kelly, he used six one-time relievers, including two 2022 All-Stars (David Bednar and Devin Williams), two other relievers who posted ERAs under 2.00 (Jason Adam and Daniel Bard) and the most closer for the defending World Series champion (Ryan Pressly). Columbia had just two hits and one walk over the final six innings of the game and never seriously threatened to retake the lead.

The knockout round will bring tougher competition for Team USA than ever before. Venezuela dominated the tournament’s toughest group and has the toughest lineup, other than the USA, remaining in the tournament. But the Americans overcame a shaky start to the competition and made progress look routine. And they reminded all future contenders that no one can match the one-two punch of Trout and Betts.

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