Saturday night’s quarterfinal showdown between the United States and Venezuela epitomized both the wonderful and the troubling of the World Baseball Classic.
LoanDepot Park, sparsely populated most nights for the hometown Miami Marlins, was packed to capacity with a sold-out Venezuelan crowd. Team USA, the tournament champions, saw Cuba win a thrilling 9-7 game to advance to the semifinals on Sunday. But tucked into the October-like frenzy, there was a rumor that the reigning World Series champions could change the course of the upcoming Major League Baseball season.
It happened with no outs in the bottom of the fifth inning. Venezuela, trailing 5-2, had runners on second and third against US right-hander Daniel Bard. Houston Astros star second baseman José Altuve, Venezuela’s leading scorer, was at the plate. The place was rocking.
Bard, the Colorado Rockies closer, had already thrown a wild pitch when Altuve’s at-bat bounced back. The next one bounced off Altuve’s right thumb. The former MVP fell to the dirt, hitting the ground, wincing in pain. Suddenly, silence.
Altuve immediately left the game. Venezuela, previously unbeaten in four tournament games, were without one of their best players for the night. The Astros were left wondering if they would be without their best player for the start of the regular season.
Altuve, 32, left the Venezuelan club with his right finger bandaged. He greeted reporters but refused to talk about his injury.
“I’m very worried,” said Omar Lopez, the Venezuelan coach and the Astros’ first baseman. “I’m sad. I’m frustrated.”
Venezuelan José Altuve hit his right thumb in the fifth inning. The Houston Astros are expected to provide an update on the injury on Sunday.
(Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)
Three innings later, Team USA’s No. 9 pitcher Trea Turner struck another blow for the Venezuelans, smashing Silvino Bracho’s 0-2 changeup over the left-field wall. The Dodgers shortstop yelled and ran to first base. His teammates mocked him at home plate. Ken Griffey Jr. Team USA’s hitting coach gave him a hug in the box.
“Individually, I think this is the most success I’ve had,” said Turner, the 2019 World Series champion with the Washington Nationals.
The blast, the third US Grand Slam in WBC history, was another fascinating sequence in this tournament, as was how the bottom of the fifth inning ended after Altuve’s injury.
Bard, whose career was cut short by the yips 12 years ago, threw another wild pitch that nearly hit Anthony Santander in the leg to bring home another Venezuelan run. Santander eventually drew a walk to load the bases and chase Bard.
Luis Arraez welcomed Jason Adam with an RBI single before Salvador Pérez lined a tying double down the left field line. Two pitches later, Ronald Acuña Jr. hit a sacrifice fly to Mike Trout in deep center field to give Venezuela a 6-5 lead.
Arraez hit a solo home run — his second of the night — off the right-field foul pole to double Venezuela’s lead. No Marlins infielder has ever hit multiple home runs in a major or minor league game. The effort was not enough.
Moments later, Venezuela announced that they were evaluating Altuve’s right hand. The Astros are expected to update on Sunday.
“Tomás Vera, my coach, took 10 seconds to come out of the game, and I said, ‘Oh, my God,'” López said. “We will see what happens. I immediately began to pray for José, for the whole team.’
In the end, Altuve may join New York Mets closer Edwin Díaz as all-stars with significant injuries in this WBC. Díaz tore the patellar tendon in his right knee on Wednesday celebrating Puerto Rico’s win over the Dominican Republic. He will miss the season after the Mets signed him to a five-year, $102 million contract in November.
Both are injury freaks in different ways. Could Altuve’s injury have happened in a spring training game? Of course. Could the intensity of the game have affected Bard’s wildness? That is also possible. But that doesn’t matter to the stars. Now they are wondering how long they will be without a superstar.