The first four hitters in the U.S. lineup Sunday night have combined for five MVPs and 30 All-Star appearances. Someday, the names Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado will all be inscribed on plaques in Cooperstown.
But this baseball game, it does funny things. On Sunday, the four preeminent American superstars went 2-for-14. At 9:24 local time inside Chase Field, the “M-V-P” chants rained down not on them, but on Mexico’s Joey Meneses, a 30-year-old journeyman who broke through as a late-season revelation last summer after spending 12 seasons in the minors.
That adoration came only once Meneses had stolen the show from those stars. In the first inning, he set the tone for Mexico’s eventual 11-5 win, hammering a Nick Martinez cutter out to left for a two-run shot. In the fourth, he put the game out of American reach, sending a Brady Singer sinker to a nearly identical spot for a three-run homer that made it 7-1.
As a sell-out crowd of 47,534 rose to its feet, most of them decked in the Mexican tricolor, Meneses walked out of the batters’ box and sent his bat into the stratosphere, providing an all-time bat flip.
“I have no words to describe it,” Meneses said. “It was a very beautiful sensation with a lot of adrenaline, with the stadium full.”
The World Baseball Classic — now in its fifth edition — might be a novelty in the eyes of some fans, but to these players, this is what it means. Afterwards, Mexico starter Patrick Sandoval said, “This is up there with one of the greatest nights of my baseball career.” The American players, meanwhile, stood in a hallway outside their clubhouse, wearing solemn expressions typically associated with playoff defeats.
“It’s every game, it’s win or go home, that’s how we’re treating it,” catcher Will Smith said.
The situation isn’t quite that dire — the U.S. is not yet eliminated — but Sunday’s defeat put their backs against the wall. Only two of the five teams from each pool advance to the knockout rounds, meaning the U.S. almost certainly must beat Canada on Monday and Colombia on Wednesday. Even then, their 11 runs allowed could cause issues with the tiebreaker, which is runs allowed divided by defensive outs.
Given those ramifications, much of the postgame press conference focused on the Americans’ pitching weakness. Indeed, their top 13 pitchers by WAR, as calculated by Fangraphs, are not pitching in the tournament due to fears over injury risk with Opening Day less than three weeks away. Even those who are here are on pitch counts, with detailed usage instructions from their parent clubs, something U.S. manager Mark DeRosa repeatedly called “tough” to manage.
Mexico, though, has those same restrictions, as does every other team in the tournament. Even the event’s best pitchers, like Shohei Ohtani, Sandy Alcántara and Julio Urías, are beholden to a 65-pitch maximum in first round games.
What Mexico doesn’t have is a lineup like that of the U.S. None of their hitters have ever made an All-Star game.
Neither side is blind to that. Mexico manager Benji Gil said he managed differently late on because of “the amount of talent that’s across the dugout.” DeRosa, meanwhile, said he has trust in his team to bounce back from this defeat because “the names on the back of the jersey are too good.”
On Sunday, that didn’t matter. In addition to Meneses’ big day, Randy Arozarena and Rowdy Tellez added two RBI apiece. Isaac Paredes and Alan Trejo contributed with one each. All of those players are solid big leaguers, but none carry the cache of the top American names.
They were the ones, though, who were serenaded by a jubilant Mexican faithful that turned the night into something more resembling an international soccer atmosphere. All night, the chants of “Me-xi-co” rang through Chase Field. When Tellez made it 10-2 in the eighth, the fans broke out into an impromptu edition of ‘Cielito Lindo,’ a Mexican folk song that has been co-opted by national team fans in a similar way to ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.’
“It was insane,” Sandoval said. “I’ve never played in an atmosphere like that.”