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Great Britain Scare Jolts Team USA Into Action at World Baseball Classic

The U.S. trailed early to massive underdogs in its opening game of the WBC, putting the perils of tournament baseball front and center.

PHOENIX — Chaminade University, Appalachian State, Leicester City and Milan High, you can turn the light off. Company is not coming.

For two improbable innings Saturday night in the World Baseball Classic, a baseball team from Great Britain, a kingdom with one baseball facility and using a civil engineer as its first pitcher out of the bullpen, made a bid to join the most improbable upset winners in team sports by taking a lead against Team USA and its $2 billion worth of players. It was half past two in the morning on the other side of the pond, past closing time at the London pubs, when Great Britain led the most expensive team ever assembled, 1–0.

“It’s not like football,” said Team USA manager Mark DeRosa. “Bigger, faster, stronger doesn’t necessarily win.”

The bigger guys did wind up winning, 6–2, in a game that should not have been close. As Great Britain manager Drew Spencer said, “I don’t think anyone was expecting this game to be that close—except us.”

What the game did do was put Team USA on alert. In the WBC, every game is a trap game. This is tournament baseball. Let your guard down and a loss hits you quickly. The U.S. escaped with a win while learning that lesson, which is a timely one considering what awaits the team Sunday night. Chase Field is sold out for when Team USA takes on Mexico, a team fighting for pool survival after dropping its opener in a brutally tense game against Colombia. The crowd is expected to be louder for the Mexicans than the Americans. Angels pitcher Patrick Sandoval will start for Mexico, bound by the usual 65-pitch limit in first-round play.

It’s not that Team USA took its opening game lightly. Adam Wainwright, who yielded a homer to Dodgers outfielder Trayce Thompson on a hanging curve two batters into the game, said the atmosphere equated to playoff baseball. Kyle Schwarber smashed a three-run homer in the fourth that put the U.S. up, 5-1. The sighs of relief were audible in the U.S. dugout.

Thompson’s solo shot in the first inning gave Great Britain an early lead.

Chris Coduto/USA TODAY Sports

Mike Trout went hitless but stole a base—diving headfirst into second—to equal his entire 2022 total. It was his first stolen base since last July, when his back started giving him fits.

No, the game was more about the fickleness of tournament baseball than who was “ready” or who had the better roster.

As baseball hotbeds go, the U.K. can claim the invention of rounders, the predecessor to baseball, but not much else. Oh, there is one baseball facility in England. Farnham Park is in Slough, Richard of Cornwall’s home turf and a town that was hopping in the Middle Ages, which sits just outside of London. In 2017, Farnham Park added the Home Plate Bar & Kitchen to its clubhouse facility. Its purpose is to provide “a dedicated place for players and spectators to eat, drink, relax and socialize [sic] at baseball and softball events.” Now, let’s borrow that idea on this side of the pond: Hoist a Guinness or two after the game with Mookie Betts, Trout and Paul Goldschmidt, the three MVPs at the top of the USA lineup.

The three MVPs went 2-for-12 against Great Britain. Trout whiffed twice. Betts popped up foul to third base, something he did not do all of last season.

“They had a couple of guys sitting 88-89 [mph],” DeRosa said. “A lot of guys are not used to seeing that. Mike was a little off. Mookie was a little off.”

Great Britain smartly stayed under hitting speed against the big U.S. bats.

Okay, truth be told, it was not some great scheme. They were throwing as hard as they could. Three of Great Britain’s first four pitchers were:

Starting pitcher Vance Worley, 35, who last threw a major league pitch in 2017, spent two years out of baseball and posted a 4.89 ERA in independent ball last year. Worley qualifies for the Great Britain team because his mom, Shirley (yes, ladies and gentlemen, Shirley Worley), was born in Hong Kong. Worley touched 91 mph, but by the second inning the scoreboard was registering his fastball as a changeup, at 86 and 87 mph. He deftly kept the game in check.

Reliever Jake Esch, 32, who for the past five years has been working as a civil engineer and giving pitching and hitting lessons at Home Plate Baseball in Peachree City, Ga. He hasn’t pitched pro ball in five years. His mother was born in Cornwall, England, where he likes to say her friends have no idea what baseball is. Esch pitched out of a third inning jam by retiring Jeff McNeil, the National League batting champion who was hitting ninth—ninth!—for the first time in his career.

Reliever Daniel Cooper, 36, who is the graybeard (literally) of Great Britain. He last pitched in affiliated baseball 12 years ago, after which he toiled for the Karlskoga Bats in Sweden and Brisbane Bandits in Australia for two seasons. Cooper was throwing 84 mph.

Schwarber’s three-run homer in the fourth inning gave the U.S. some relief in its WBC opener.

Chris Coduto/USA TODAY Sports

There are going to be nights in this WBC when Team USA steamrolls the opposition, invoking the 10-run mercy rule. The lineup is just too ferocious. Tim Anderson, Pete Alonso, Bobby Witt Jr. and Cedric Mullins remained on the bench against Great Britain.

Last night was not one of those breakout games. Not the first game, not when, as DeRosa pointed out, players have only about 20 spring at-bats under their belts, and not when independent league castoffs and civil engineers are tossing 87 mph salad up to the plate. But it is coming, and now that the danger from Great Britain has passed, it will come sooner rather than later.

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