Monday, March 27, 2017

World Baseball Classic - Semi-Final - Japan vs USA

Japan vs. USA.  Final Score: 2 to 1 - USA Wins. 
Last week, the World Baseball Classic tournament came to an end.  I wasn’t able to attend the second round games in San Diego do to extenuating circumstances from life and work.  Team USA lost to Puerto Rico in San Diego, but was able to beat the Dominican Republic, enacting some revenge for the 7-5 loss I witnessed in Miami and move on to the Semi-final round in Los Angeles at Dodgers Stadium.  
As the runner-up in their pool, they would play the winner of the other pool of teams.  That would be Japan.  A Japan vs. USA match-up was what I wanted to see in the final, but it was coming in the semi-final instead.  Knowing that I would only be able to see one game in the Semi-final/Final round, I decided to go to this game.  It was the match-up I most wanted to see and there’d be no guarantee the USA would be in the final.  
So I got the tickets, took off early from work, and accompanied by a Japanese member of my language group, went to the Ravine.  
The Game
It was tense.  And I’m not just talking about the game.  
The weather forecast was for rain.  We’ve had more than our usual fare of rain this year in the Los Angeles area.  It was ironic that, right after I bought the tickets for the game on Tuesday I saw the weather forecast indicating that, after several bright and sunny days, rain was 60% likely on Tuesday and Wednesday, the scheduled days for the Semi-final games and the Final.  
Dodgers stadium has had only 17 rainouts since opening in 1962.  That is the fewest of any open-air stadium in the MLB.  I decided to look up the stadium’s rainout policy, something I’d never thought to do before.  It told me that, if a gain is rained out then tickets purchased for it could be used for the date it was rescheduled for.  If the game wasn’t rescheduled, then they could be exchanged for a ticket for another game of equal or lesser value.  
The last rainout at Dodgers Stadium was on April 17, 2000 against the Houston Astros.  Would I be dealing with the first rainout in seventeen years?  I DID have to deal with heavy traffic caused by the rain, which increased my tension.  I fought through it.  Did what I could to keep my cool, picked up my companion for the game in Little Tokyo and headed to the stadium.  
When I was buying my parking ticket, I asked the lady in the booth if there was any worry about the game being canceled.  The heavy part of the storm had stopped, but it was still wet and drizzly.  
“Nah…”  The woman said it was such confident certainty that my spirit was brightened like the sun that couldn’t be seen behind the clouds.  “They’ll play.”  
And the game did go on, though I’d never seen Dodgers Stadium quite like that.  It was cold and wet.  A fog hung over the top of the stadium, clouding the lights.  Our seats were just underneath the level above us.  If I leaned forward, which I often do during important moments, water dripped down the back of my neck.  My pant legs from the knees down got quite damp from being just out from under the overhang of the higher deck seats.  
But it didn’t put a damper on the excitement of the crowd.  A good number of people turned out, split about evenly between fans of Team USA and those of Team Japan.  I figure that a lot of the Japan supporters were Japanese ex-pats living in the Los Angeles area.  It was not uncommon to see one sporting a Los Angeles Dodgers cap, while wearing a Team Japan jersey.  As the game continued, the sound kept shifting back and forth between what would be typical for a game in Japan, and what I was used to hearing going to see games in the U.S.  There was a small, but loud group in the left field bleachers supporting Team Japan with the typical horns, drums and chants for each batter that stepped up to the plate.  Their chants were picked up by the fans surrounding us.  
“Ka-tobase!  Ka-tobase!”  I’d heard this chant numerous time attending games in Japan.  I know what it means now.  “Make it Fly!  Make it Fly!”  
The tension of whether or not the game would be played was replaced by the drama and tension of who would win.  Both teams played their own version of short ball.  The first Japanese batter stepping up to the plate with a runner on first tried to bunt him forward.  The Americans were playing hit and run and trying to steal when they could.  Between just about each inning, the field crew came out to lay fresh clay down on the base path, making it look like someone had laid a giant bandaid over a sunburned scar.  
It was a situation when any hit, any dropped ball, could make the difference.  And that proved true for the usually mistake free Japanese.  A grounder that got through the infielder in the fourth.  This allowed the batter, Christian Yelich, to reach second.  Andrew McCutchen later drove him home for Team USA’s first run.  A solo shot by Ryosuke Kikuchi tied the game in the sixth.  Team USA was able to regain its one run lead in the eighth by banging out a series of hits that brought Brandon Crawford home from third.  What should have been a double-play ball turned out to be too late at first, allowing the winning run to score.  This sent Team USA into the final game, where they won the first WBC championship for the country by beating Puerto Rico, another revenge game, 8-0.
The Experience
The weather may have been damp and gloomy, but the spirit of the crowd was not.  As one newspaper writer put it, it had something of a high school atmosphere, with everyone having a great time supporting their team.  
And more impressive than that, was how friendly the crowd was.  It was pretty evenly matched, with the fans of Team USA and Team Japan evenly numbered.  The moment one side started chanting, “Ni-pon, Ni-pon!” the other side would retort, “USA!  USA!”  
But in between the chants and the cheers, and the calls from both sides telling the umps where their judgement was lacking, everyone was having fun together.  I saw Team USA fans giving Team Japan high fives for good plays by their team on the field, and Team Japan fans asking to take photographs with the Team USA fans sitting in their rows.  It was an intense game that both sides wanted their team to win.  But it was also a collection of baseball fans, enjoying the game they love being well-played in conditions that were less than ideal.  It could be said that the conditions heightened the drama.  But it was the fans that elevated this to one of the most intensely fun games I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch.  
It has bothered me since the inception of the WBC that the United States, the country where baseball was born, had not won a championship.  Time after time, Team USA would field a team with a lineup consisting of the best sluggers we had to offer.  Our best finish was in 2013, when we ended up in fourth place.  
This year, we brought together a team of quality position players that could hit and play defense, and added a pitching rotation that could shut opposing batters down.  And this time, we won.  This pleases me greatly.  But the experience of watching games where the crowd was so into it each time, from literally around the world, made me even happier.  
This is something I definitely want to see happen again and again.  

Play Ball!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

World Baseball Classic - Game 3 - USA vs. Canada

The Game
This game started with an explosion and then cruised to its end after that.  
Going into this game, Team USA was in a situation of “win and you’re in.”  The Dominican Republic had already done to Colombia what they had been doing to every other team they faced, scoring 7 runs in the 11th to break a 3-3 tie and end up winning 10-3.  This meant that Team USA could avoid a messy tie-breaker situation like that which got Mexico eliminated from the tournament the day before by beating Canada and taking the 2nd spot behind the DR.  
In the first and second innings, the team certainly looked like they were determined to ensure there would be no surprise comeback against them this game.  
For the third game in a row, Team USA got a dominate pitching performance from their starting pitcher.  Danny Duffy went four innings before being pulled due to pitch count, allowing only two hits and no runs.  When you add his performance to Stroman’s and Archer’s the games before, Team USA starting pitching went 16 2/3 innings without giving up a single run, and striking out 15 during that stretch, tying a WBC records for strikeouts in a single round.  Only once in the three games I saw were there men on first and second behind one of the starters.  
I thought Duffy’s was the most commanding performance of the three, at least in the beginning.  He started off with a first pitch strike with almost every batter he faced, and sometimes even two.  He stayed ahead of them and forced them to make easy grounders to the infield when they did make contact.  
Team USA hitting was just as dominant in the first two innings.  They went through the entire line-up in the first inning, posting three runs and driving out the Canadian starting pitcher before the frame was up.  They added another four more in the 2nd, punctuated by a three-run homer by Nolan Arenado.  It was the first home run in the series for the team and put them up 6-0 at that point in the game.  I started wondering after the inning ended if was going to see the game shorted by the WBC mercy rule, which ends the game if one team is ahead by 15 runs after five innings, or ahead by 10 after seven.  At the rate they were scoring runs, I was looking forward to an early end and a chance to get back to the hotel early to pack for my flight out next morning.  
After the blistering start, the game settled down into something less intense.  Maybe the USA hitters didn’t feel the need to pile on the runs with how well their pitchers were doing.  The remainder of the game would have a player or two reach base, but there was no sense of any genuine threat to the score being built.  Only Buster Posey’s solo shot in the bottom of the eight changed the scoreboard after the third inning started.  
The USA relievers did a much better job preventing any hint of a rally by
Team Canada.  The Canadian batters were displaying their frustration with greater frequency with each inning and at bat.  Canada went 0-3 in the first round of the WBC and will have to qualify if they are to play in the tournament in 2021. 
With this win, Team USA finished 2-1 behind the Dominican Republic in their pool and will start play later this week in San Diego at Petco Park.  They will play the DR team again on Saturday, 3/18, in a rematch of Saturday’s game.  
The Experience
This was very much my usual experience at a ballpark in the United States.  There were no drums or chants.  The seats were fairly empty when the game started, though that may have been due to the unexpected rainstorm that swooped through just before game time.  They filled up soon enough though as people came in late.  It was first time I recall seeing “the wave” make its way through the crowd during the tournament.  I don’t “wave” myself.  It often seems to be something fans start doing when the action on the field isn’t keeping their interest.  
That may have been the case this time two.  With the explosion of runs at the beginning of the game, it was pretty much done before it was over.  I was happy with the result.  I wanted to see Team USA go on the the 2nd and then Final Rounds after this, and now they have that chance.  But the looks on the faces of the Team Canada fans, some of whom I’d met and talked with, and sat next to while they cheered on the USA against Colombia and the DR, in the previous games took away any desire to celebrate overtly.  This was not how they wanted their team to go out, and I could appreciate that sentiment.  
As for the WBC as an event, I can say I definitely enjoyed it.  As I said, I got the result I wanted overall, Team USA advancing to the next round.  But it reminded me of my experience going to WorldCon, the World Science Fiction Convention which takes place every year in a different city somewhere on the planet.  Just as I am alone in my “normal life” when it comes to not having someone to talk with about aliens and faster than life travel, I have very few people on a daily basis where I can chat about how the game would be better without the DH rule, or why Kershaw is so dominate, or what team needs what to make it to the playoffs.  This trip to the WBC gave me a chance to talk with people every day for three days straight, that shared my passion for the game and gave me a glimpse as how other countries embrace it.  

I hope this tournament continues.  And I hope to go to it again.  Like…  Next week when the finals come to Dodger Stadium?  If Team USA makes it, I plan on being there. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

World Baseball Classic - Game 2 - Dominican Republic vs. USA

Dominican Republic vs. USA.  Final Score: 7 to 5 - Dominican Republic Wins.
The Game
 The game had a “same, but different” feel from the start.  Team USA playing another Latina American team, this type the more heavily favored champion from the 2013 WBC, the Dominican Republic.  It was billed as a rematch from four years ago, when the Dominican Republic defeated Team USA to advance to the finals of Round 2 play.  
This time Team USA was playing as the visiting team, batting at the top of the inning.  And it felt they were the visiting team.  The crowd, much, much larger than the day before when the U.S. beat Colombia, was decisively dominated by fans of the DR Team.  At least one fellow Team USA fan gave an estimate of three to one, DR vs. USA fans in attendance.  I don’t doubt his estimate at all.  
And as with the Colombian fas, the DR fans were loud and raucous, chatting and playing drums and horns from the get-go.  Even more so.  As the game started, they cheered every out, every strike, as if it were happening in the ninth inning of a World Series game.  
This game started slowly.  After two pitches, the DR pitcher paused as the pitching coach and someone that must have been a trainer came out to the mound.  I saw the trainer checking the pitcher’s foot.  Just as I started wondering if he had pulled something with his first pitch, they brought groundskeepers out to rake the mound for him, particularly the spot where he was landing at the end of his motion.  
As with the game against Colombia, Team USA got some stellar starting pitching.  Marcus Stroman allowed only 3 hits scattered over 4 and 2/3 innings.  There were moments where it looked like he was being frustrated over his pitches not hitting the zone the way he wanted them, or maybe that he wasn’t getting the calls he was expected, but they were few and he worked through them to get DR side out without allowing a run to cross the plate.  Team USA hitters did their jobs, putting balls in play and, aided by a couple of DR fielding errors in the outfield, added one or two runs per inning over a three inning span.  By the time Stroman reached his pitch limit and was forced to leave, Team USA added two more runs to build what I thought was a comfortable 5-0 lead.  
That proved to be wrong.  The comeback started in the bottom of the 6th, with the first homer I’ve seen hit this tournament off of Tanner Roark.  This gave the pro-DR crowd a huge burst of adrenalin.  There roar of approval was so loud it hurt my ears and left them ringing.  It got louder as Roark allowed another run before the inning was over.  Suddenly we had a game again.  
The DR relievers were up to the task, silencing the previously productive USA bats.  The DR hitters were swinging with added life, often ahead in the counts and having men on base before USA pitching could register an out.  Roark left after giving up another run in the 7th.  USA was able to escape that inning, with their lead shaved to two runs at 5 to 3.
Andrew Miller, whose relief work for Cleveland last year helped the Indians reach their first World Series in decades, came on in the 8th to stop the DR rally.  What he did instead was give up two home runs, one with men on base, to Starling Marte whose error earlier in the game allowed the U.S. to their first two runs.  By the end of the inning, the DR, and their insanely delirious fans were up 7 to 5.  
The US batters went down one-two-three in the top of the 9th to end the game that way.  
The Experience
This game was as painful to experience as it was exciting to watch.  
First, there was the heartbreak of seeing the team build what I thought was a commanding lead on the back of quality pitching and timely hitting, only to see it blasted to pieces over the course of three successive innings  What made it especially bad was the feeling that, for whatever reason, the DR batters were just waiting for Stroman to leave so they could get to the relievers.  It makes even more bewildering when you look at the bull pen Team USA sports and see that it’s filled with very high quality arms, pitchers that are used to coming in and saving games and squashing rallies during the regular season.  
So far, the two starters for Team USA threw 8 2/3 innings, allowing on 3 hits and no runs to opposing batters.  Post that line on any box score and you’d lead people to believe that your team was dominating play.  
Second it was physically painful when the DR. heavy crowd got into it again once their team started their comeback.  I mean this quite literally when I say, My…  Ears…  Hurt.  More than once I used my fingers to plug them to stop the pain.  I once saw Metallica perform live in concert at the Great Western Forum back in the day.  Yesterday, when the DR drove in their winning runs, it was louder.  
Finally, there is a sadness within me stemming from this loss.  After the game, I spoke to  a number of the Team USA fans walking back to our hotel.  There was the usual selection of questions we were asking each other.  Why did Leyland, the manager for Team USA, send Roark out again in the 7th when he so clearly struggled in the 6th?  Where were “all the stars,” referring to the superstar players from the MLB that opted to not try for the WBC?  And also, amongst those fans still looking forward, what does Team USA need to do to go forward into the 2nd Round?  
I had a question of my own, one that came out of a talk from three of us standing by the front desk before going up to our rooms.  It was a thought that started gnawing at me as I sat amongst the fans from Colombia and the Dominican Republic, and remembered watching Japanese baseball with those fans as well.  One that seemed to connect to the criticism being directed about the MLB regarding its attitude toward the World Baseball Classic, one where they support it in the media, but seem to not encouraging the players, or perhaps even dissuading them to a degree through playing limitations, to participate.  
Could it be, I asked, that America, the country that invented the game, is being eclipsed in its passion for the sport by other countries, like the Dominican Republic and Japan? 
No one I asked the question gave an outright, “no.”  They all considered it.  Some conceded that it might be true.  “Where were the US fans?” one asked me in reply, pointing to the overwhelming support for the DR that showed up.  One other conceded that, “There are so many other things, other sports, to choose from here,” and that for a country like the DR, baseball might be all they have, so they put everything they have into it.  
Maybe.  I’m willing to bet they have soccer, too. 
About Team USA’s chances, it comes down to this.  If the Dominican Republic beats Colombia today (they’re leading 3 to 1 in the top of the fifth as I write this), and USA beats Canada, the the DR and the USA both advance to the 2nd Round as the top two teams from their pool.  That’s the most straightforward way for the US to go to San Diego to play.  
If Colombia wins over the DR, and Canada beats the US, then the Dominican Republic and Colombia go to the next round.  That’s the most straightforward way for Team USA to be eliminated.  
All the other combinations, with Team USA at either 2-1 or 1-2, lead to tiebreakers based on defense, the number of runs allowed per inning, then the number of earned runs allowed per inning, amongst the teams vying for the spot, with a possible tie-breaker game taking place on Monday, 3/13.  
Clearly, the best thing Team USA can do for itself is win against Canada tonight.  

PS: Colombia just scored in the bottom of the 6th, making the score 3-2, DR.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

World Baseball Classic - Game 1 - USA vs Colombia

A quick blog posting on my Experiences at the World Baseball Classic, Pool C, in Miami, Florida.
USA vs. Colombia.  Final Score: 3 to 2 - USA Wins.
The Game
Based on the scores I’d seen posted in previous WBC games, I figured we were in for an offensive oriented affair.  My expectation was strengthened when they announced one of the rule changes to MLB play: Pitchers are on a strict 65 pitch limit.  They can only go over that count to finish an at-bat.  I thought that once the starters were done for the day at least, the batters would get a chance to feed on the relievers.  
That didn’t quite happen.  The starting pitchers, Jose Quintana for Colombia and Chris Archer were masterful in their openings.  Archer pitched perfect baseball for his four innings before being pulled after the fourth, having thrown only 41 pitches.  Pulling him before his limit I believe saves him to return for another appearance, as pitchers that hit the maximum are forced to rest a certain number of days.  Quintana almost as good, allowing only a single man to walk before giving up a single in the fifth. Quintana did get some inspired help from his centerfielder, Tito Polo, who robbed Team USA batters of four of five hits that would have been doubles and at least one run that would have scored had he not made another of his diving catches.  
In the news this morning, it was mentioned that Archer and Quintana combined for the longest stretch of run-less baseball in the history of the WBC.  Well played.
After the starters left, things got more interesting as both bullpens struggled to hold the opposing batters in check.  Whenever I checked the scoreboard, it seemed to show the pitcher on the mound throwing as many balls as strikes, if not more.  This seemed to be more true for the USA relievers, one of whom gave up the first runs of the game by giving up three doubles in a row to Colombia.  Team USA had to work harder to get runners in scoring position, and was only able to tie the game when a third strike got past the Colombian catcher.  Nolan Arenado, hesitated a second before sprinting to first.  He barely beat the throw to be safe, and the running came home from third to score.  
The game stayed tied, despite an opportunity for Colombia when a Team USA reliever walked two men in a row with one out, until the bottom of the 10th when Adam Jones, with men on second and third, smacked a hit into shallow left-center, scoring the runner from third.  
This was a great game to watch.  It started as a tense pitchers duel and turned into a twisting turning affair where it felt like any hit, or blown throw, might decide the game.  From the fifth inning forward, I had to get up out of my seat and pace back and forth along the concourse to blow off steam and tension and continue watching.  
The Experience
The game was very fast paced.  That’s what happens when you have two pitchers efficiently dealing with one side of batters after another.  We reached nine innings before three hours, and only got a little ways past the three-hour mark because of extra innings.  
Besides the 65 pitch limit, WBC apparently uses the DH, Designated Hitter rule.  This was another reason why I figured on seeing more offense.  Another rule change they announced at the top of the 10th which I didn’t get to see,, if a game is tied at the end of the 10th inning, starting with the 11th inning, the hitting team gets to start with men on first and second base.  A baseball version of sudden-death.  We didn’t get to see that happen, but it’s an interesting idea.  
The Fans
When I first went to Japan in 2007, one of things I wanted to do was see a baseball.  Not just because I’m a fan of the sport, but because I had started studying Japanese the year before, I thought the game would prove to be something of a Rosetta Stone for me.  I knew the game and could follow along despite being able to speak only basic “survival level” Japanese at the time, and would be able to gain insight into their culture by how they played and watched the game.  
The World Baseball Classic is the first international sports festival I’ve attended.  And despite not coming with the specific intent of gaining insight into Colombian culture through baseball, I did notice somethings about how the fans participated in the event.  
Basically, they are like the Japanese, only different.
The difference amounted to that of discretion.  The Japanese will chant and make noise for their team when they are up to bat.  When their team is on defense, Japanese support turns into something you might see and hear at a golf tournament, polite applause and nods at the good play just made.
The Colombians don’t make the distinction between when their team is at the plate or in the field.  They make noise.  A lot of it.  It seems like they only quiet down to take a breath before banging their drums and tooting their horns.  And their is none of the organized chants the Japanese love to memorize and sing together.  The only thing I clearly recognized was, “Colombi, Colombi, Colombi!” when their team was threatening, or was trying to squelch a threat.  It sounds similar to what I’ve heard when international soccer games are aired on TV.  American fan participation tends to be more sedate for the most part, spiking when some big hit happens, or at a dramatic situation when everyone stands up to see what’s going to happen.  Only then will they join together in a ritual chant, like “Let’s Go, Dodgers!”
Colombian fans, just like the Japanese fans I’ve watched games with, also seem to be a very polite crowd.  At the game I was surrounded by people wearing Colombia colors.  A few Americans were around me at the beginning, but left soon after, presumably to find more red, white and blue seating that open closer to the action.  
I noticed that these fans made a concerted effort to engage me in a positive fashion depending on what was happening on the field.  If Team USA made a great defensive play, they would turn to me, give me a thumbs up and say, “Your guys are good.”  When their side made made a big play, like when Tito robbed Team USA of a run, after cheering they would turn to me and shrug.  “Lucky catch,” they said once.  “Next time, your guys, they gonna get it, for sure.”  
For my part, I did what I could to return the sportsmanlike attitude, answering questions about what was written up on the scoreboard, and explaining what I knew about the rule changes for the tournament.  
At the end, after Team USA won, they looked at each other and shrugged that “oh, well…” shrug every sports fan knows.  As they walked past me to leave, they each extended their hand to shake mine or offer a fist bump.
“Good game.”  “Good job.”  “Congratulations.”  It was almost like I had arranged all this for them.  But as the only representative of my country on that row, I shook their hands, bumped their fists and agreed it was a very good game.  

I didn’t thank them for coming, like I’d actually hosted the game for them.  That would have been weird.