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Joe Torre's focus muddled in WBC
Joe Torre must do what is best for Major League Baseball. As the executive vice president of baseball operations for MLB, he’s contractually obligated to do so.
So, even while taking leave of his day-to-day duties in order to manage Team USA at the World Baseball Classic, Torre remains mindful of those 30 franchises. When he invited players to represent their country, he did so while promising their employers they would get enough innings and at-bats to prepare for the regular season.
But if Team USA fails to win this World Baseball Classic, that goodwill gesture will be one of the biggest reasons. It nearly created a national embarrassment for the American team, which trailed Canada in the eighth inning of Sunday’s elimination game before rallying for a 9-4 victory.
The U.S. motto might as well be, “We’re playing to win … as long as that’s OK with every general manager, manager and pitching coach in the league.”
Shouldn’t that change at some point? Every pitcher on the roster — except Tuesday starter Gio Gonzalez — appeared in pool play. Every position player — except utility man Willie Bloomquist — started at least one game.
The tournament ends one week from Tuesday, at which point the players will have nearly two full weeks to make final preparations for the regular season. That’s plenty of time.
Shouldn’t Torre set everything else aside and focus exclusively on winning the tournament — which would have overwhelmingly positive ramifications on the WBC and baseball itself?
Apparently, he can’t.
“Big-league clubs are still in spring training,” Torre said. “We’re borrowing their players … We still have to be mindful of the promise I made to take care of these players and make sure they get back and get ready to start the season.
“We’re still going to do the same things — try not to repeat with the bullpen (and use relievers on back-to-back days) … We have to think the same way. We have to get at-bats. We have to get guys in the games.”
Sunday, here’s what that meant: Giancarlo Stanton, home run hitter extraordinaire, didn’t appear — even as a pinch hitter — in an excruciatingly close game. In Stanton’s place, Ben Zobrist and Shane Victorino made their first starts of the tournament.
Canada’s lineup included seven left-handed hitters, including Joey Votto, Justin Morneau and Pool D MVP Michael Saunders. Torre appropriately used left-handed starter Derek Holland for five innings and left-handed reliever Glen Perkins in the sixth. But then Torre covered the final three innings with all right-handed relievers.
It’s not that Torre lacked further left-handed options. Jeremy Affeldt and Tim Collins were eligible to appear, according to WBC pitch count regulations. But Torre opted for Heath Bell, who was perfect, and David Hernandez, who struggled, in part because he wanted them to continue preparing for the season in game conditions.
The choice of Craig Kimbrel in the ninth wasn’t controversial at all — the overpowering Atlanta closer was perfect with two strikeouts. But the Hernandez decision was curious.
Hernandez entered with a two-run lead in the eighth and Votto, Morneau and Saunders due up. In his first WBC appearance, he was set up to fail. So it wasn’t a surprise when Hernandez allowed a run on three hits while retiring only two batters. It took a graceful play by second baseman Brandon Phillips to bail out Hernandez’s successor, Steve Cishek, and avert a lead-changing rally by the Canadians.
Team USA came that close to elimination Sunday, all because Torre wanted to be sure Hernandez got his work in.
Is that any way to win a tournament?
“You still have to make sure that the pitchers get the work,” Torre said. “As I say, we’re probably a little more restrained than the rules allow, because it says you can go back-to-back with guys. I’m not saying we won’t do that, but we don’t want to get in the habit of doing that.”
Torre’s approach — a byproduct of teams’ overheated apprehension about player involvement — puts an asterisk on the tournament. And it’s not a necessary one.
I acknowledge that several of the top American players don’t participate in the WBC. They have their reasons; some are valid, others aren’t. But I can live with that, because Team USA — even without Justin Verlander, Mike Trout and the rest — is the most talented of any team in the WBC.
Pitch counts aren’t the problem, either. They are a necessary evil for a tournament held in March — the best option among imperfect alternatives, as MLB commissioner Bud Selig pointed out over the weekend.
My issue is with the bureaucratic smog that hangs over Team USA in the form of additional exclusions and preconditions that persist after the tournament begins. If the WBC aspires to be a preeminent international sporting event, which it can and should be, then teams must be downright desperate to win, as they are in the Olympics or World Cup.
Maybe that explains why the opposition has scored first in each of Team USA’s three games. The other teams, while inferior in talent, are playing with greater urgency. Team Mexico closer Sergio Romo threw 26 pitches Thursday against Italy and 13 more the next day to preserve a win over the U.S. Torre probably wouldn’t have allowed that.
When I asked Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt how often the wishes of a player’s team affected his decisions, he said, “You always want the players to get their innings in. But the bottom line, when it comes down to a game like today, (is) you have to win.”
Just imagine the postgame news conference if Team USA lost Sunday … “I would have loved for Affeldt to face Morneau, but, well, Hernandez was supposed to face hitters today …”
Team USA still may overcome those scheduling shackles because its players are exceptionally talented and quite earnest in their belief that the Americans are pursuing victory at all costs, even as Torre is partially focused on preparing his 28 players for the April games he won’t be managing.
“I think it’s in the back of his mind, but I think winning is in the front of his mind,” said third baseman David Wright, playing in his second WBC. “He made that very clear in one of our first meetings: He’s going to do what it takes to win.
“Obviously, we want to get guys at-bats. But I don’t think anybody’s going to complain. Everybody knows what they signed up for. Everybody knows winning supersedes … you know, trying to … ”
“Winning supersedes everything,” Wright continued. “The goal is to win here. Secondary, obviously, is trying to get enough at-bats and work in. We play in this tournament to win, not to get a certain number of at-bats or certain number of innings.”
Interesting, isn’t it? Torre seems to believe quite the opposite. He hopes the players on Team USA can win the World Baseball Classic while focusing their preparation elsewhere. I’m not sure that’s possible.
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