PHOENIX — Mookie Betts and Mike Trout are Team USA’s two best players. They’ve combined for four Most Valuable Player Awards, 16 all-star appearances and have received the two largest contracts in MLB history. Having them bat 1-2 in the lineup is akin to having Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson as the starting backcourt on the Dream Team. They are the two best position players of their generation, and are both on track to sail into the Hall of Fame.
Both admitted to being in awe putting on the Team USA jersey for the first time as professionals this year. It took them both a few games to shake off those nerves and get on track at the plate.
But with Team USA needing a win to advance to the World Baseball Classic quarterfinals and its vaunted offense scuffling, Betts and Trout put the team on their shoulders to propel them onto the next round.
Trout tripled and drove in three runs, Betts had two hits and scored twice, and Team USA hung on to beat Colombia, 3-2, in the Pool C finale at Chase Field. Team USA finished second in the pool with the win and advances to face Venezuela in the quarterfinals on Saturday.
Betts and Trout combined for five of Team USA’s seven hits. At least one of them had a hand in all of Team’s USA’s runs.
“It’s definitely fun when I know he’s going to get a hit,” Trout said. “And when he’s hot, no one is going to get him out. Just being able to, (you) look at tonight, just keep innings alive and give me a chance to drive in some runs. That’s all you can ask.”
Trout went 1-for-5 with three strikeouts through the first two games of the WBC. Betts went 1-for-10 through the first two games. With its best players at the top of the lineup slumping, Team USA struggled to sustain a consistent offensive attack against a Great Britain staff of minor leaguers and journeymen and got blown out by Mexico.
But with Team USA facing the possibility of being eliminated in the first round in embarrassing fashion, Betts and Trout stepped up. In the final two games of pool play, both of which Team USA had to win to advance, Betts went 3-for-5 with four runs scored from the leadoff spot and had multiple heads-up plays on the basepaths. Trout went 4-for-6 with a triple, a home run, six RBIs and two runs scored hitting behind him.
The fact they turned upward at the same time was not a coincidence. As they struggled to find their rhythm, they bound together to help each other click.
“We’re just in the cage grinding, talking,” Betts said. “ … It’s early in spring, and these games are meaningful and we want to make an impact. We grind together.”
Betts and Trout made their impact felt immediately in Team USA’s crucial finale against Colombia. Betts led off the game with a 103.1 mph missile to left field and was robbed of a hit by a diving catch. Trout followed with a triple into the right-center gap that left his bat at 112.5 mph.
After Trout was stranded at third to end the first inning, the duo took matters into their own hands to get Team USA on the board. Betts lined a two-out single in the third and advanced to second base on a wild pitch. One pitch later, Trout drove a single through the right side to score Betts and stake Team USA to a 1-0 lead.
But that lead only lasted until the next time Betts and Trout came to the plate. With one out and Will Smith on second base, Betts lined a single into left field and astutely took second base when left fielder Jesus Marriaga overthrew his cutoff man and threw the ball directly to the plate.
Sensing the opportunity, Trout drove a two-run single into left field two pitches later to give Team USA a 3-2 lead. If Betts hadn’t hustled to second on the throw, Trout’s single would have merely tied the game. Instead, Betts’ baserunning put him in position to score the decisive run.
“I’m not surprised, but, yeah, it lights me up,” Team USA manager Mark DeRosa said. “I saw exactly what you saw. That’s why you teach fundamentals to the kids at home—to hit the cut-off man or keep it head high. As soon as he saw that ball was being shot to home, I saw him tear around first base.
“He’s a special player. He’s an instinctive player.”
Once Trout and Betts gave Team USA the lead, the bullpen did the rest.
After Colombia jumped on USA starter Merrill Kelly for four hits and two runs in three innings, Kendall Graveman, Daniel Bard, David Bednar, Jason Adam, Devin Williams and Ryan Pressly combined to pitch six scoreless innings with two hits allowed, one walk and nine strikeouts. The effort bought time for Team USA to take the lead, and once it had it, the bullpen never let Colombia get close to taking it back.
For Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, Rewards Outweigh Risks of Playing in WBC
While saddened by Edwin Diaz’s injury, Mike Trout and Mookie Betts said they both felt the rewards of playing in the World Baseball Classic outweighed the risks.
From the time Betts scored the go-ahead run in the fifth, Team USA’s relievers allowed only two baserunners to reach. Neither advanced past first base.
“God, could they have done better?” DeRosa said. “Devin Williams threw one pitch the entire pool play and looked like midseason form out there. David Bednar‘s heater is exploding. Jason Adam has electric weapons to go to.
“Just awesome domination and execution by those guys.”
Team USA by no means had its best showing during pool play. Its vaunted lineup hit just .268, 12th out of the 20 teams in the tournament. Its infield defense repeatedly failed to make plays, including three more misplays in the finale. Three of its four starting pitchers showed worrying signs in terms of stuff, performance or both. Given a weak pool to cruise easily through, Team USA instead failed to pull away from Great Britain and Colombia, the two teams who finished last in the pool standings, and got blown out by Mexico, the one team with even a remotely comparable number of major leaguers.
But despite it all, Team USA is still alive. It is advancing to the quarterfinals, and is doing so at a time its two best players are finding their stride.
With the bond Betts and Trout are forming, both on the field and off of it, Team USA has a chance.
“I just look at him as my boy and I’m just out there playing with my boy,” Betts said, “and he just happens to be Mike Trout.”