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Team USA in a world of trouble in small-sample-size World Baseball Classic

PHOENIX — Team USA, folks, is in serious trouble in the 2023 World Baseball Classic.

Mathematically, of course, it’s still fine. Even with the loss to Mexico on Sunday, if Team USA beats Canada and Colombia in its final two games, that should almost certainly be enough to advance out of Pool C, which is the goal. But the team that has taken the field in the first two games probably isn’t winning both games. 

Might not even win one, if we’re being honest. 

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There’s no doubt the U.S. has the best roster in the group. Wait, let’s tweak that. The U.S. has the group of players with the best resumes. The U.S. has the roster with the most talent. Future Hall of Famers and All-Stars at the peak of their games, all up and down the line. But does that make for the best roster? It’s a legitimate question. 

And through two games, the answer is probably “no,” because over and over in the first two games — even in the win against Great Britain — too many times the individual pitcher-vs.-hitter matchups were won by the guy not wearing the USA jersey. The guy with the worse resume. The guy with less talent. 

And that’s a problem. Because, folks, this isn’t a 162-game schedule. It’s not even a 60-game pandemic schedule. 

The WBC is a small-sample-size nightmare for a team like the USA.

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Three players in Sunday night’s game had at least three hits. All three played for Mexico. Two players scored at least three runs. One player had five RBIs. Yep, all Mexico. Randy Arozarena, Joey Meneses and Rowdy Tellez combined to go 9 for 15 with seven runs scored and nine RBIs. 

The USA lineup had eight hits, total, in an 11-5 loss. 

With few exceptions, the players on the U.S. roster are not playing like future Hall of Famers and All-Stars at the peak of their games. Mookie Betts is 1 for 10 in the leadoff spot. Mike Trout is 1 for 6 with three strikeouts in the 2-hole. Jeff McNeil is 1 for 8 in the 9-spot, and don’t be surprised if Bobby Witt Jr. is playing second base against Canada. 

It has not been pretty.

“I always attribute it to the fact that these guys are 20 at-bats into their normal spring training, then ramping it up,” Team USA manager Mark DeRosa said after the loss to Mexico. “The names on the backs of the jerseys are too good. A lot of trust in that room.”

A lot of trust, but not a lot of time. 

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Look at the middle of this game as an example of the types of matchups that are not being won by players on the USA roster. Mexico brought in Javier Assad to start the fourth inning. He’s a 25-year-old right-hander who made his MLB debut with the Cubs in 2022, posting a 4.49 FIP and 1.460 WHIP in 37 2/3 innings. 

Assad faced 10 hitters in the U.S. lineup over the next three innings. Only one reached base safely, Trout on a single to lead off the sixth, but he never reached second base. Assad retired Pete Alonso twice. Kyle Tucker, Tim Anderson, Will Smith, McNeil, Betts, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado failed to get the better of Assad, too. In no rational world could anyone have looked at the facts — the resumes, the talent, the reputations — and thought, “That’s definitely a matchup that favors Mexico.”

But the reality was, the result favored Mexico.

Assad could face those same 10 hitters a dozen more times and he probably wouldn’t be that successful again. But that doesn’t matter. It’s a small-sample-size world, and the U.S. is floundering in it right now. 

The United States used eight pitchers in the game, and you’ll hear a lot about “restrictions” on how pitchers can be used. And that’s true. That’s a reason, not an excuse. 

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Clubs have asked that relievers not be brought out for a second inning, which is why Kendal Graveman didn’t come back out after cleaning up for starter Nick Martinez in the third, and why Devin Williams didn’t come back out for the ninth after cleaning up for Daniel Bard in the eighth. 

DeRosa looked and sounded frustrated after the game as he talked about trying to manage a pitching staff with those types of limitations. And it’s a valid frustration. He knew what the deal was long before he took the job as manager, but the reality of the situation looks a lot different from the dugout of a team trailing by six runs than it does in an interview room seven or eight months earlier. But the United States isn’t the only team with those issues, and that’s not even the biggest problem.

The biggest problem, again, was that the USA players didn’t get the job done. The problem was that Martinez couldn’t get out of the second, that Brady Singer gave up four runs in two innings, that Bard gave up four in the eighth. 

The only player in the Mexico starting lineup that could even make a case for cracking the USA starting nine is Arozarena, and would he really get the nod over Tucker in a corner outfield spot or Alonso/Kyle Schwarber at DH? 

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The United States has a team with better players than Mexico. Mexico had the better team. That felt pretty obvious on a small-sample size night in Phoenix. They’d better hope that changes by Monday’s game against Canada.

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