How about that Robbie Glendinning!
The kid from the Royals’ farm system jacked the go-ahead homer in the top of the seventh and had the heads-up tag play in the bottom of the seventh to help Australia beat South Korea, 8-7, in one of the bigger World Baseball Classic upsets in five WBCs to date.
South Korea was supposed to be one of the top half-dozen or so teams in the tournament.
Australia? With all due respect to the Czech Republic and China, well, uh … you get the idea.
And that’s all it took. One look at those celebrating Aussie faces mingled with the backstory of Australian-born White Sox closer Liam Hendriks encouraging his mates from afar as he continues treatments for cancer, and I’m in.
A World Baseball Classic event that has never found a good time on the calendar, never had a full-throated endorsement of big-league teams sending its players or a particularly strong following in the United States has never been more interesting — from a absolutely star-studded U.S. roster (and coaching staff) to upsets in four of the first six games of pool play during the opening week of the 20-team tourney.
How about Italy knocking off heavily-favored Cuba in 10 innings? Or Xander Bogaerts’ Netherlands team beating both Cuba and Panama in their first two games?
So much for the Dominican, Puerto Rico and maybe Japan providing the only legitimate threats to U.S. dominance in the Americans’ bid to defend its 2017 title.
After paying glancing attention in past years, this feels like must-watch stuff this time around, especially with a team like Australia suddenly looking like it has a chance to advance from pool play for the first time and a perennially talented team like Cuba in danger of not.
“It’s the sickest tournament ever,” Puerto Rico’s $341-million shortstop, Francisco Lindor, told ESPN.
U.S. manager Mark DeRosa and hitting coach Ken Griffey Jr. have their hands full this time around, for sure.
But more than that, this tournament is full of talent like it has ever been before, across more teams, finally at least starting to resemble the vision MLB had for its international centerpiece when it pitched the concept more than two decades ago.
Whether the favored Dominican or U.S. wins — or Australia continues some kind of Cinderella story — there’s a storyline this year for any baseball fan.
Top matchups to watch at World Baseball Classic
And here are the matchups I’ll be rooting for as I take a fresh look with renewed appreciation for the World Baseball Classic this year — none of which you’d otherwise be able to see during the major league season.
Shohei Ohtani vs. Mike Trout — Perhaps the two greatest players in the game are Los Angeles Angels teammates for at least the next few months, and Trout is in the tournament for the first time. If Team Japan and Team USA wind up advancing from pool play, as expected, keep an eye on this Ohtani’s schedule in Japan’s rotation.
Marcus Stroman vs. Team USA — The last time this tournament was played, six years and a pandemic delay ago, Stroman was a young Toronto Blue Jays pitcher who twirled six no-hit innings before being lifted after a leadoff hit in the seventh inning of the championship game for the U.S. to win MVP honors. This time, he’s a Chicago Cubs veteran pitching for Puerto Rico, with a real chance to advance out of a deep Pool D — and possibly face Trout’s boys. It would be a rematch of that 2017 title game.
Polar Bear vs. Timmy Trumpet — If Puerto Rico and Team USA advance, who wouldn’t want to see New York Mets teammates Pete Alonso — one of the best pure power hitters in the game — face closer Edwin Diaz — one of the best pure power pitchers in the game? And if it happened to be in the final, the whole tournament might be at stake.
Owen Caissie vs. Yu Darvish — This one is a serious longshot. But if Team Canada can pull off an upset or two in pool play and sneak past, say Mexico, to advance with heavy pool favorite Team USA, it could give the Cubs’ exciting young prospect a chance to face the Team Japan star the San Diego Padres traded him for after the 2020 season. “Twitter was lovely to my son that week,” Caissie’s mom, Michelle, said sarcastically about fan backlash in Chicago over the Cubs salary-dumping Darvish for a bunch of prospects that included three teenagers, including Owen. “They’re like, ‘Who’s this kid?’” Fans have come around since then to the kid who’s now a top-15 prospect in the system. And they’d love nothing more than to see this matchup.
Kyle Schwarber vs. One Last Shift — The Philadelphia Phillies’ reigning National League home run champ, and one of the game’s more severe lefty pull hitters, has expressed great pleasure in seeing the extreme infield shifts banned by MLB this year. However, that shift ban does not apply to World Baseball Classic play. So it’s potentially Schwarber against the World (of players assembling on the right side of the field) again for another week or two.
Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.