*Article originally seen on the San Diego Union Tribune
* Photo: Athletic Trainers Mark O’Neal (Cubs) and Lonnie Soloff (Indians) celebrate championship
As Dodger Stadium sprang to life Wednesday afternoon, a day after an uncharacteristic damp muted the American semifinal in the World Baseball Classic, veteran manager Jim Leyland coyly decided to spread a little sunshine.
Leyland, winner of 1,769 big-league games with four teams, settled in for a pre-title-game media chat.
The least emotive man in baseball’s most emotive tournament, the person who has balked at talk of a bigger purpose, a bigger narrative for the U.S. in its first visit to the WBC final — America’s pastime, home soil, all of it — let loose an unexpected one-liner.
“We’re trying to make America great again,” Leyland said.
America was indeed great in the WBC, though for the very first time.
And starter Marcus Stroman was the greatest of all.
Stroman baffled Puerto Rico through six hitless innings, and the U.S. opened the offensive flood gates with an overpowering 8-0 victory to capture its first championship in the global event.
The U.S. gained bat-swinging confidence as the 25-year-old Stroman, a relative big-league unknown with the Blue Jays, tightened a vice grip on Puerto Rican bats that had outmuscled teams 55-18 coming in.
Ian Kinsler of the Tigers blasted a two-run homer in the third, and the Americans buckled its previously unbeaten opponent by scoring three two-out runs in the seventh.
The U.S. earned the title, whether or not your “Dancing with the Diamond Stars” scorecard reflected big numbers for levels of pride and polish. The team pulled it off in a burst of Trout-less, Harper-less, Bryant-less, Kershaw-less, Scherzer-less glory.
Stopping defending champion Dominican Republic in San Diego meant a semifinal matchup Tuesday with unbeaten Japan. Winning that meant a matchup with another unbeaten — endless-octane Puerto Rico. Leyland labeled it the equivalent of three consecutive Game 7s, including a pair on back-to-back nights.
Gauntlet thrown. Gauntlet gutted.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m stressed,” Leyland said early Wednesday. “… You know, I’m old, I’m tired, but I’ll be ready.”
He was. So was his team.
The U.S. leaned on an RBI single by Christian Yelich of nearby Thousand Oaks to make it 3-0 in the fifth inning. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates tacked on a run-scoring infield single to balloon the advantage to 4-0.
Doubt evaporated in the seventh when Brandon Crawford ripped a two-run, two-out single. That pushed the hitting streak of the Giants shortstop to seven games, tying teammate Eric Hosmer and Jurickson Profar of the Netherlands for the longest in the tournament.
No one, though, dictated the outcome more than Stroman — the no-brainer MVP.
The U.S. dialed up the ground-ball specialist who, according to the inside-baseball gurus at StatCast, finished second in the big leagues in “topped” ball rate a season ago. Stroman followed the script early, coaxing ground balls that led to five of Puerto Rico’s first six outs. He continued to follow it in the middle, producing six consecutive groundouts in the fifth and sixth.
The uncanny command put Puerto Rico on the ropes in front of 51,565. When the game ended, the public-address system blared the James Brown classic “Living in America” as the U.S. team swarmed the mound.
“I think we’ve at least been a small part of maybe putting this WBC on the map for the United States,” Leyland said.
The Americans roughed up Puerto Rico, despite a massive hole in the heart of its lineup.
Colorado’s Nolan Arenado, a basher who led baseball in extra-bases hits across the last two seasons (171), came into the game as a cleanup hitter with a .115 average, collecting more strikeouts (9) than total bases (7).
One at-bat into Wednesday, the strikeouts rose to 10 when Arenado stranded Yelich on second in the first inning. Another at-bat in the third, with another runner in scoring position, produced another strikeout — as he chased a ball 2 to 3 feet out of the zone.
Arenado led the National League in homers and RBIs the last two seasons, the first to accomplish that in the league since Mike Schmidt in 1980-81. The WBC, however, messed with his mojo.
The slide became so severe that Arenado, hitting in the 4-hole with a runner in scoring position with less than two outs, tried to bunt his way on in the fifth. Puerto Rican pitcher Joe Jimenez made an easy play to third to cut down Adam Jones.
When Arenado singled up the middle in the seventh, he slapped his hands together during his trip to first in an obvious sign of relief. He added another single in the eighth.
Ultimately, nothing seemed fatally flawed for the U.S. on a near-flawless night for Stroman, who allowed his only hit to Angel Pagan to start the seventh. The crowd roared as Leyland lifted his resilient starter.
Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez, the former Marlins skipper who will lead the Padres’ high Single-A affiliate at Lake Elsinore, understood the significance of making the title game in his country.
“When we got to Los Angeles, we were very aware that we were the only Latin American team (remaining),” Rodriguez said. “So it means a lot.”
Nothing or no one, though, meant more than Stroman.