By Gabriel Fidler
LOS ANGELES – Marcus Stroman pitched six no-hit innings and the United States pounded out 13 hits to defeat Puerto Rico 8-0 and win its first World Baseball Classic championship. After losing to Puerto Rico in round two, the USA (7-2) was the only nation to defeat the Caribbean island.
Christian Yelich gave Team USA its first chance in the opening frame with a two-out double, but it could not break through against Puerto Rico starter Seth Lugo until the third inning.
Jonathan Lucroy started off the frame with a single to left, and Ian Kinsler stroked a two-run homer to left centre to put the United States on the board. Lugo would walk two batters in inning, but struck out the side to keep the score at 2-0.
Meanwhile, Stroman sailed through Puerto Rico’s lineup, which entered on a collective hot streak. Only Carlos Beltrán, the career leader in walks at the WBC, was able to reach base after a free pass in the second, but a grounder to Brandon Crawford at shortstop turned into a double play.
The U.S. broke through against Lugo, who had looked excellent in winning his first two Classic starts, in the fifth. Kinsler started with a safety and moved over a base on a walk to Adam Jones. Yelich then singled Kinsler home but, after a failed sacrifice bunt from Nolan Arenado that erased Jones, scored on a RBI-single from Andrew McCutchen.
With the score 5-0, Stroman kept the Puerto Rican bats and, perhaps as importantly, its fans silent. Through six, he had faced the minimum, with 12 of the 18 outs by groundball.
Brandon Crawford would quash any hope of a Puerto Rico comeback with a two-run hit in the seventh, and Giancarlo Stanton also drove in a run with a one-base knock of his own. Ángel Pagán finally broke up Stroman’s no-hitter leading off the seventh, poking a double down the left field line, and that was all for USA’s starter. He exited to a deafening ovation, as most of the crowd of 51,565 stood to praise the incredible performance.
Another run-scoring knock from McCutchen put the eighth run on the board for the United States, and Sam Dyson, Pat Neshek, and David Robertson each hurled a scoreless inning to seal the victory.
The United States piled onto the field to celebrate the historic victory. Confetti cannons filled the air with colour, and Jim Leyland was presented the WBC trophy by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. Leyland accepted, explaining “I had the honor of managing for our country, you know, the coaches having the honor of coaching for our country, the players have the honor of playing for our country, but this is really about the men and women that serve our country. That’s who this is for.” The speech brought thunderous applause.
Stroman’s no-hit bid was the second longest ever after Shairon Martis tossed a seven-inning no-no for the Netherlands in 2006. He struck out three and allowed only two baserunners in his six frames, earning World Baseball Classic MVP honours for his efforts.
“I love pitching in these moments. I love the atmosphere,” explained Stroman. “I feel like the bigger the game, the more I’m able to get up, the more effective I am. I truly try to pride myself on being a big-game pitcher. This was probably one of the biggest if not the biggest game I’ve ever pitched in, and that was just a nod to coming off with a lead and giving us an opportunity to win that game. I mean, the defense behind me was incredible.”
Stroman represented the United States on the All-Tournament Team with Christian Yelich and Eric Hosmer, while Puerto Rico had five players tabbed: Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltrán, and its trio of young infielders in Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Javier Báez. All five hit well over .300, while the pitching staff allowed only 24 earned runs in eight games. Molina is the only two-time All-Tournament Team selection in Classic history.
“Puerto Rico had a great team. They had great leadership in Edwin. He did a terrific job,” remarked Leyland. “Like I mentioned last night, Molina, Beltran, those guys are such professionals, you know? We really beat a good team, but we’ve beaten a lot of good teams — Venezuela, Japan, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, you know. We were the best team.”
Five players had two hits for the United States, including Kinsler and McCutchen, who also each drove in a pair. Team USA pounded out 13 hits and collected seven walks against Puerto Rico’s staff, which did strike out 13. Lugo took the loss.
“I believe that truly the two best teams of the tournament were playing today. And today, the United States, they won because they batted better and pitched better. And we were defeated by a team of All-Stars,” offered Puerto Rico manager, Edwin Rodríguez. “We have our heads high. I believe the people in Puerto Rico are satisfied with the performance of our young players because they gave their hearts. So, the satisfaction is huge. It has filled our hearts. So, the players leave the field with having fulfilled the goal, and I know that Puerto Rico knows this, and that’s why we are satisfied with the results.
Commissioner Manfred has insisted that if he is still commissioner in the period leading up to the next potential WBC that the tournament will be held, and the now concluded edition shattered attendance records, crossing the one million attendance threshold for the first time ever. “We’ve set ratings records and broken them for non-playoff games. We broadcast WBC games, I think it was to 182 countries around the world,” noted Manfred before the game. “And best of all, the games on the field have been absolutely unbelievable, compelling, our players at their best, combined with a little nationalism, has really been a great thing.”
The final of the World Baseball Classic has been held in the United States in all four tournaments, yet 2017 will go down as the first time that Team USA not only played in the championship game, but claimed the trophy.
“We’re just trying to make America great again!” concluded Leyland, smiling. “Thank you all. I hope you enjoyed it.”