The Commercial Appeal

Team USA embraces underdog role in WBC

- Bob Nightengal­e

PHOENIX – It was one of the greatest collection­s of American baseball talent ever assembled for an internatio­nal tournament, a Who’s Who of baseball stars in their first team workout before the start of the World Baseball Classic tournament.

There was Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. There was Paul Goldschmid­t and Nolan Arenado. There were MVP award winners. There were World Series champions. There were batting title champs. There were home run sluggers.

My goodness, even one of the coaches, Ken Griffey Jr., is a Hall of Famer.

“It’s amazing just looking around this room,’’ WBC manager Mark Derosa said, “and seeing the collection of talent. Just surreal. I’ve been playing with lineups, and it’s hard to believe someone of that caliber is going to actually be batting eighth or ninth.’’

Looking around the clubhouse, and addressing the team for the first time, Derosa made it clear that this is not just a glorified exhibition, or a paid vacation to get away from the drudgery of spring training.

This is a tournament that Team USA won the last time it was played back in 2017, and anything less than winning another gold medal, they say, would be a bitter, ugly disappoint­ment.

Derosa realizes that while they may be abundantly talented, it was made quite clear in their meeting that they’re not favored to win this year’s WBC. Maybe it’s a sign of disrespect.

Or maybe just the reality that Japan and the Dominican Republic, who won three of the first four tournament­s, are just that good.

It’s not as if the players have a chip on their shoulder, but, oh, boy, it sure feels a little strange being the underdog.

“They’re aware,’’ Derosa said. “They are very aware of that. These guys know that we’re not picked to be the last one standing, and I think it motivates them.’’

Veteran starter Adam Wainwright, who will start Game 1 of the tournament Saturday against Great Britain, says simply: “I love bulletin board material, that helps me.’’

The players kept reiteratin­g Tuesday that while they plan to have fun, with most having their family coming along for the ride, it’s still. “Gold medal or bust!’

“We want to win, we want to win every game, we want to win the tournament,’’ Goldschmid­t told USA TODAY Sports. “We’re just not here just to get out of spring training and hang out, these are real games. We’re going to take it seriously. Sometimes, these quoteunquo­te exhibition games are a little more fun, but if you want to win this, you’ve got to be 100% in.

“That’s the attitude our 2017 team had, and I think that’s something this team will have as well.’’

Derosa, who has a coaching staff that also includes five-time World Series champion Andy Pettitte, and threetime World Series champion pitching coach Dave Righetti, says he actually got a little emotional putting on his USA uniform Tuesday.

“It’s just pretty awesome and humbling

and just such an honor,’’ Derosa said, “to be wearing this jersey, to be representi­ng my country, my family. When I stood up to speak, that was a moment, like I had to take a snapshot right?

“It’s like my first game at Yankee Stadium and Mr. [Bob] Sheppard say your name [as the public address announcer]. It’s like getting married. I was so nervous to get up and speak.’’

Derosa told the players that this is not some sort of glamorous exhibition. It is a competitio­n.

They’re in it to win it.

Sure, he’ll try to get playing time for everyone, but it’s not as if it will be equal for everyone.

He is not going with a script, but the hot hand. There will be plenty of games position players will be going nine innings.

He’s aware that other countries, like Japan and Korea, take the WBC more seriously. It would be devastatin­g for a team like Japan not to advance to at least the semifinals or finals with Shohei Ohtani.

If it happens to Team USA, the players and staff certainly will be upset, but it’ll hardly be considered a national embarrassm­ent.

But yet ….

“The whole reason I signed up for this is to win this thing,’’ said Trout, the team captain. “Anything else is a failure.’’

Betts, the Dodgers All-star right fielder and former MVP, scoffs at the notion that it’s less important for Team USA to win it than any other country, just like it’s silly to believe other teams should be considered the favorites.

“I’ve been on some great Dodgers teams that we were favored to win it all,’’ Betts says, “and we didn’t. The underdog ended up winning. Really it doesn’t matter who’s favored and who’s not. At the end of the day, we’ve got to go out, play a game, and let the game decide it.’’

Team USA will play exhibition games Wednesday against the San Francisco Giants and Thursday against the Los Angeles Angels, with their first official WBC game Saturday at 9 p.m. ET [FS-1] against Great Britain at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix.

They are the heavy favorites to win their pool and advance to the quarterfin­als next week in Miami, but then, playing single-eliminatio­n games against the best baseball countries in the world, anything can happen.

“It’s a sprint, seven games in 11 days,’’ Derosa said. “I think if it was 162 [games], talent usually wins out. That’s not the case here. It’s talent. It’s execution. It’s the desire to want to be together. Its willing to be selfless. All of those things.

“The best team in postseason, talentwise, is not the team that hoists the trophy every year.’’

In Derosa’s mind, this is the best team, and they plan to spend the next two weeks proving it for all of the world to see.

“I wanted to create a team atmosphere where these guys have fun, and be selfless,’’ Derosa says. “To a man in this room, and I reiterated it to them, there’s not a single guy that’s wearing this jersey that didn’t call us to want to be a part of it.

“They just want to win it.’’

 ?? CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES ?? Team USA manager Mark Derosa (4) talks with his players during a practice ahead of the World Baseball Classic.
CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES Team USA manager Mark Derosa (4) talks with his players during a practice ahead of the World Baseball Classic.

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