The symbolic moment of the United States-Puerto Rico game -- a thrilling 4-3 win for Puerto Rico to eliminate the tournament favorites -- came in the bottom of the sixth inning. The U.S., trailing 4-0 and struggling to generate any offense, was desperate enough to try to run on Yadier Molina. Not a good idea. Not down four runs. Not with Molina behind the plate. He gunned down Jimmy Rollins to end the inning and turned around to the throng of Puerto Rican fans behind home plate and raised his fist in a picture of triumph.
Not on me. Not on me.
In one play, the U.S. had turned into the scrappy underdogs, fighting for a single run. The Puerto Ricans had become the confident favorites, not afraid to show a little bravado on the field.
All this because of Nelson Figueroa, the 38-year-old journeyman from Brooklyn, N.Y., who didn't even pitch in the majors in 2012. He doesn't break 90 mph with his fastball but held a lineup full of All-Stars to no runs and just two hits over six innings. He's a terrific story, one of many we've seen in this World Baseball Classic. He has never pitched in the postseason. He may never make it back to the majors. He grew up rooting for the Mets and got to play for the Mets. This was the biggest game he has ever pitched in and he shut down Ryan Braun and Joe Mauer and Giancarlo Stanton. Figueroa has started 65 games in the big leagues and allowed zero runs only three times. This one won't go into the official record book as a fourth scoreless effort, but it's undoubtedly the one he'll remember the rest of his life.
So Puerto Rico advances to the semifinals in San Francisco; it plays the Dominican Republic on Saturday for seeding into the final four. The winner will play the Netherlands, the loser gets Japan.
The drama didn't end there. A few key moments:
I don't understand why Joe Torre left in Eric Hosmer to face J.C. Romero, the veteran left-hander, with the score 4-3, two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth. In his career, Romero has held lefties to a .612 OPS while righties have raked him for an .817 OPS. You have to hit a right-hander there for Hosmer, who hasn't been swinging well anyway. Jonathan Lucroy hit .400 against lefties last year but remained on the bench. OK, that's a small sample size, but Lucroy versus Romero is the pretty obvious move there. Torre and his U.S. coaches should have been ready to make that decision in such a pivotal moment.
Overall, it wasn't a strong tournament for Torre, from his strange penchant for the sacrifice bunt to hitting Brandon Phillips -- his seventh- or eighth-best hitter -- second in the lineup. But the blame, of course, has to fall on a lineup that just didn't produce, hitting just one home run in six games. Like the Yankees last offseason, the bats were just cold at the wrong time.
Another key at-bat took place in the bottom of the seventh, Adam Jones batting against minor league pitcher Jose De La Torre with the bases loaded and two outs. The 3-2 slider was an inch or two outside, but plate umpire Mark Wegner rang up Jones. Still, it was a gutsy pitch from De La Torre and too close to take, especially since Wegner had been giving that corner all game.
Finally, before the Hosmer at-bat, Fernando Cabrera got Stanton to pop out down the left-field line with the bases loaded. Stanton fouled off two 3-2 fastballs and then Cabrera threw a slider at the knees that Stanton was out in front of. Maybe Stanton drives it when he's in midseason form, but it was a good pitch as Stanton appeared to be looking for another fastball.
Just because the U.S. is eliminated -- for the second time in three Classics it won't even reach the semifinals -- isn't a reason to stop watching. The games have been exciting, with enthusiastic crowds and underdogs Puerto Rico and the Netherlands upsetting the U.S. and Cuba. What's not to appreciate about that? If maybe there's something to learn from all this it could be the passion, both from the players and the fans, that we've seen from the non-U.S. teams. In the U.S., we often beat this out of our young athletes. Celebrate a touchdown in football and get called for a penalty. Don't smile too much when you hit a home run. We have to play these games seriously, the right way, with life lessons to teach. I can't help but think of Nick Saban looking grim and unhappy or college basketball coaches yelling at refs for 40 minutes. When you watch the Puerto Ricans and the Dominicans and the Kingdom of the Netherlands squad, you see the simple joy of playing the game. Don't tell me that wasn't a factor in some of these results. I think that's a lesson we can learn. And if you're a fan? Enjoy the game. Baseball isn't as slow as you may think.