For 11 long years, the United States has been less of a power than a punching bag. Baseball might be the national pastime, but the national team could not even get as far as the championship game of the World Baseball Classic.
Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States, had gotten there. So had Cuba, and Japan, and Korea, and the Dominican Republic.
The rest of the world put together the very best teams possible. The United States riffled through the rejected invitations to put together a representative team. While the rest of the world flocked to television sets in record numbers, the home fans shrugged off the WBC and cursed at their March Madness brackets.
This time, a star-studded squad of U.S. batters and an unheralded corps of pitchers have done their part. For the first time in the four editions of the WBC, the Americans will play in the unofficial world championship game.
With a 2-1 victory over Japan on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, the U.S. eliminated the two-time WBC champion and advanced to Wednesday's title game against unbeaten Puerto Rico. Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays is expected to start for the U.S., with Seth Lugo of the New York Mets starting for Puerto Rico.
The American players have embraced the carnival atmosphere in Miami, San Diego and now in Los Angeles, and with it the curious underdog status of the U.S. team. The horns and drums might be played by fans of the other teams, but "U-S-A" comes through loud and clear, if a cappella, from the fans in stars and stripes.
"The support's been amazing," Andrew McCutchen said. "So it definitely makes you want to go out there and play with a little chip on your shoulder, and you want to be able to go out there and get the W."
Dodger Stadium might not have even been two-thirds full Tuesday — the crowd was announced at 33,462 on a cool and rainy evening – but the "U-S-A" chants were deafening as the Americans scored the winning run in the eighth and held on for the victory in the ninth.
The Americans did not overpower anyone at bat. They won in a much more unexpected way: they let the Japanese team, renowned for its fundamental excellence, beat itself.
"The team that makes mistakes will lose," Japan Manager Hiroki Kokubo said. "That's what it means."
The U.S. scored its first run in the fourth inning, when McCutchen singled home Christian Yelich, who'd reached base on an error by second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi.
After Kikuchi tied the score with a home run in the sixth inning, the U.S. scored the winning run in the eighth, when Japan botched the contact play.
The U.S. had runners on second and third with one out, and Adam Jones grounded directly to third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda. Brandon Crawford had taken off from third base and, had Matsuda fielded the ball cleanly, Crawford would have been thrown out at home.
However, the ball clanked off Matsuda's glove, and the only remaining option was to throw out Jones at first, as Crawford scored.
The star of the evening was starter Tanner Roark. The Washington Nationals right-hander is not Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner, who declined to play for the U.S. He is not even Chris Archer or Danny Duffy, who did.
"It's a chip, yes," Roark said.
However, of the eight major league starters to finish last season with an earned-run average under 3.00, Roark was the only one to play in the WBC. (Max Scherzer bowed out because of injury, Johnny Cueto because of his father's illness.)
Roark pitched four innings, giving up no runs and two hits. He left only because of a pitch count imposed by the Nationals.
The unheralded starting five of Archer, Duffy, Roark, Stroman and Drew Smyly — the supposed weak link on the American roster — have posted a 1.50 ERA in the WBC.
"We just go out there and do our stuff and not let things get inside our heads," Roark said.
The USA baseball motto is "for glory." With one more game, the team will be glorious champions, but Manager Jim Leyland said the result should not be the focus.
"Make a memory," Leyland said. "Hopefully it will be a good one."