PHOENIX – It was a nervy affair from start to finish, but Team USA is through to the knockout stage of the World Baseball Classic. Short on big league pitchers and star power, Colombia nevertheless hung in against the U.S. thanks to excellent defense and shrewd plate discipline. But American stars Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, whose quiet tournament-opening weekend had been the source of some consternation, showed up in force when the tournament was on the line, leading the way in a 3–2 victory.
The U.S. advances as the no. 2 seed in Pool C and will face Venezuela on Friday in the quarterfinals in Miami. Colombia, who upset Julio Urías and group winner Mexico in the first game of pool play, could not make good on its early promise after losses to Canada and Great Britain. After entering Thursday with a realistic chance of advancing, Colombia not only goes home early but also finished last in the pool and will be relegated to the qualification tournament for the next WBC.
Colombia had its moments. Gio Urshela made a spectacular play in the first inning to turn a sure RBI double off the bat of Nolan Arenado into a double play that preserved a scoreless first inning, the first of two twin killings he started in the game. And the major American weakness from early in the tournament, starting pitching, was little better with Diamondbacks righty Merrill Kelly on the mound. In three innings of work, Kelly threw just 36 of his 61 pitches for strikes, walked two (including Jorge Alfaro, which takes some doing), and allowed four hits. Colombia loaded the bases with one out in the second but could not force a run across. An inning later, they took a brief 2–1 lead on a double by Oscar Mercado, an Urshela sacrifice fly, and back-to-back hits by Alfaro and Reynaldo Rodriguez.
But there was no answer for Betts and Trout. The two Los Angeles-based MVPs went a combined 5-for-8; Betts scored two of the three American runs, and Trout accounted for all three American RBIs. They opened the scoring in the top of the third when Betts singled and advanced on a wild pitch. Trout, facing a hard shift, did every cranky announcer proud by shortening up and poking a soft but well-placed line drive through the hole vacated by the repositioned second baseman Fabian Pertuz.
Two innings later, Betts and Trout were at it again. After an inning-opening walk by no. 8 hitter Will Smith, Betts singled and advanced to second when left fielder Jesus Marriaga tried to make a play on Smith as he advanced to third. Another Trout liner followed two pitches later, putting the U.S. back in front and providing the final margin of victory.
Trout has only gotten to play in the MLB postseason once, and when he did he was unremarkable — 1-for-12 with three walks and a home run — as the heavily favored Angels were swept by Kansas City in the 2014 ALDS. In basketball, a player of Trout’s quality would put on a display that reminded the world of his prowess every week or two. But baseball is so inflexible in its structure that he can’t dominate a game the same way under normal circumstances.
This was an exception. In a do-or-die game, Trout was at his spectacular best, and not just at the plate. His speed on his first-inning triple was breathtaking, his play in center field flawless. Colombia needed to win by a multi-run margin in order to prevent the U.S. from advancing, but even though they led for an inning and a half, at no point were they in a position to advance. That might not have been so if Trout hadn’t run down a Meibrys Viloria liner in the gap to end the third and put the last serious Colombian threat to bed.
After that play, Kelly exited, and another strength of the American team, its bullpen, brought the game home. As much as the U.S. rotation has been cause for concern, the relief corps, at least on paper, is as good as any in the tournament. When the U.S. has gotten touched up for big innings, it’s mostly been either starters or multi-inning piggyback relievers on the mound. After Mark DeRosa pulled Kelly, he used six one-inning relievers, including two 2022 All-Stars (David Bednar and Devin Williams), two other relievers who posted an ERA below 2.00 (Jason Adam and Daniel Bard), and the closer for the defending World Series champion (Ryan Pressly). Colombia registered just two hits and a walk in the final six innings of the game and never seriously threatened to retake the lead.
The knockout round will bring stiffer competition for Team USA than ever before; Venezuela dominated the toughest group in the tournament and has the toughest lineup, other than the U.S., remaining in the competition. But the Americans overcame a concerning start to the competition and made advancement look routine. And they reminded all future competition that nobody can match the one-two punch of Trout and Betts.