As the Nationals enjoy just their second off day of the spring on Tuesday, several members of the team are still hard at work, competing on a much grander stage. The second round of the World Baseball Classic is underway, with the opening games of Pool 2 beginning today in Miami.
The Dominican Republic squares off with Italy at 1:05 p.m. ET, while Team USA will send Gio Gonzalez to the mound against Puerto Rico in the split-doubleheader finale at 8:05 p.m. live on MLB Network. Of course, the United States might not be playing in this round at all if weren’t for another Washington National coming to the rescue.
After dropping its opening game to Mexico, 5-2 in Phoenix, Team USA found itself in an early 2-0 hole in a win-or-go-home game against Italy. The offense finally came through, and manager Joe Torre handed the ball to Ross Detwiler with a 6-2 lead in the sixth inning.
“It’s amazing, playing for your country,” said Detwiler of his pressure-packed outing. “We’ve played some pretty close games. Everybody’s putting their heart and soul into it. Seeing all the fans coming out and chanting ‘U-S-A’ and everything, it really brings chills.”
Detwiler certainly rose to the challenge. After reigning NL Cy Young R.A. Dickey was touched up in the loss to Mexico, Ryan Vogelsong struggled early in his start against Italy before giving way to the bullpen. Detwiler entered and mowed down the competition, allowing just a single and a walk over four scoreless frames, striking out three to record a 12-out save, the first of his career. Another comeback win against Canada in the final game of pool play on Sunday ensured the Americans would play on.
Of course, Detwiler is certainly accustomed – perhaps uniquely so – to pitching meaningful games in March.
“I had to compete for a job the last few years, so it’s not really any earlier than I’m used to,” he said of bringing competitive fire to spring starts. “I’ve never had a Spring Training where I just come in and take it easy and just get ready for the season. I’ve had to win a job in the past. I think that helped me out this year.”
Now it’s Gonzalez’s turn to shine, in the national spotlight during primetime, against a Puerto Rican team that features MLB stars like Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina and Angel Pagan. Gonzalez did not join the team for the first round, but watched every game on television, including Sunday’s bout with Canada from Flanagan’s, a favorite spot in his hometown of Hialeah.
Upon arriving at Monday’s workout at Marlins Park, Gonzalez immediately sought out his Washington rotation-mate.
“The first thing Ross did to me was give me a big old hug, big pat on the back,” said Gonzalez of his reunion with Detwiler. Gonzalez praised the fellow lefty on his outing against the Italians. “The way he went out there and performed, I think he set the tone. He looked really good.”
Detwiler expects nothing less of Gonzalez, who won 21 games and finished third in the National League Cy Young race last season.
“I think Gio’s gonna be just fine,” Detwiler said with a laugh. “He knows how to go out there and compete and win. And obviously in his home city he’s going to do well. He’s going to bring a big crowd out here, and hopefully they’re chanting ‘U-S-A.’”
Team USA battled a loud, pro-Mexico crowd in their contest in Arizona, and there is sure to be plenty of Puerto Rico fans in attendance on Tuesday night in Miami. But if last season was any indication, Gonzalez alone may well help mobilize the local community in favor of the red, white and blue.
“The last time I was here it was over 600 tickets,” said Gonzalez of the purchases by family and friends for when the Nationals took on the Marlins last season. “I think all of Hialeah came.”
Regardless of Team USA’s results in Miami, one Nationals player has already cemented his spot in the semifinals. Roger Bernadina’s Netherlands squad continued its Cinderella run with an upset of Team Cuba in Japan and will join the Japanese and two semifinalists from Pool 2 in San Francisco.
The Nationals are also represented at the minor league level in the WBC by Mike Costanzo and Matt Torra (Italy), Adrian Nieto (Spain; eliminated), Randolph Oduber (Netherlands), Eury Perez (Dominican Republic) and Jimmy Van Ostrand (Canada; eliminated).