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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

US players enjoy the ‘World Series’ atmosphere at WBC

Munetaka Murakami (55) celebrates with teammates at loanDepot Park in Miami on Monday night after hitting a walk-off 2-run double to lift Japan over Mexico, 6-5, and into the World Baseball Classic final against USA.

By James Wagner

Jeff McNeil, a star second baseman and outfielder for the New York Mets, is an exceptional hitter with a standout ability to make contact. He won the 2022 National League batting title with a .326 average over 148 games. His average over his five major league seasons is .307. Over the winter, the Mets rewarded McNeil, 30, with a four-year, $50 million contract extension.

Yet, before a season in which the Mets have outrageously high expectations, McNeil has barely been playing. As a member of the United States’ stacked World Baseball Classic roster — which includes other stars capable of handling his positions, such as Mookie Betts and Tim Anderson — McNeil has logged only 11 plate appearances during the two-week tournament. Only three U.S. players have had fewer.

“Obviously, you wish you were playing more,” McNeil said while standing in the dugout at loanDepot Park in Miami on Sunday, before the United States toppled Cuba, 14-2, to advance to Tuesday’s final against Japan, a 6-5 winner over Mexico on Monday in the other semfinal. But McNeil was not exactly complaining when he uttered those words.

“That’s just how good this team is,” he said, citing Anderson, a Chicago White Sox shortstop who shifted to second base for the tournament. “We’re playing good baseball right now and we’re facing a lot of left-handed starting pitching as well. T.A. has been doing great out there, so keep rooting for him. The overall experience has been fantastic.”

That, ultimately, is what has given McNeil perspective throughout the WBC. Sure, he might not be playing as much as he is used to or the Mets may want, but McNeil said he had still learned from his time in pressure-packed games in which he was surrounded by stars.

“All of these games — especially the Mexico game and Venezuela game — have been somewhat what I imagine the World Series would be like with the kind of atmosphere,” he said. “You see that and get used to playing in that, and I think it helps down the line.”

There is an underlying predicament in accepting an excused absence from your MLB club to participate in the WBC, especially for a country with a lot of stars: You get to represent your country, but you might lose playing time. For players from places such as the Dominican Republic, Japan, Puerto Rico or Venezuela — where the WBC matters a lot more than it does in the United States, and television ratings have sometimes broken records — that was often a no-brainer.

Although the United States attracted many star position players, it struggled with top-level pitchers. Several cited injury concerns or the physical toll of ramping up earlier than usual before a six-month regular season. Some interested players, including Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers, simply could not get the needed clearances to participate. (Players are required to be covered by insurance to participate.)

Some of the fears expressed by teams were confirmed, in part, when Edwin Díaz, star closer of the Mets, sustained a season-ending knee injury while celebrating one of Puerto Rico’s wins. Then, José Altuve, a star second baseman for the Houston Astros, sustained a broken thumb when he was hit by a pitch during Venezuela’s game against the United States on Saturday.

Despite all of those factors, McNeil wanted to play. In fact, he sought out U.S. manager Mark DeRosa to express interest, and was asked to join when Boston Red Sox second baseman Trevor Story had elbow surgery in January. McNeil had to alter his usual preparation for the season, but he insisted he was happy.

“I’ll be fine,” he said, and then pointed to the 2022 preseason shortened by a labor stoppage. “We had three weeks of spring training last year, and I won a batting title. I don’t need that much time.” When he returned to the Mets, he said, he might go to the back fields at their spring training facility in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and get extra at-bats in simulated or minor league games.

Overall, McNeil, like many of his teammates who took part in the WBC, has found the tournament rewarding. First-time participants such as pitcher Adam Wainwright, outfielder Mike Trout and Betts have gushed about the event. Betts has looked reenergized, and Wainwright and Trout have said that this has been the most enjoyable baseball experience of their careers.

“I knew going in it was going to be a fun time, but I never knew it was going to be this fun,” Trout said last week. Betts added: “I encourage those who are watching, come join, come play for Team USA, because this is a lot of fun.”

Two players loved their 2017 WBC journeys so much that they signed up to come back: Paul Goldschmidt, the St. Louis Cardinals first baseman who was named the 2022 NL MVP, and his perennial All-Star teammate, third baseman Nolan Arenado. Players have also said that getting to spend time around rivals-turned-teammates or pick the brains of other standouts has been fruitful.

“Watching their routines and seeing how they go about their business, you understand why they are the best in this game, and I really enjoy that part,” Arenado said of being around Trout and Betts, who have four MVP awards and 16 All-Star appearances between them.

But it’s not just the players. The United States coaching staff is full of former stars, including five-time World Series-winning pitcher Andy Pettitte and Hall of Fame outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. So, although McNeil had only 19 plate appearances over six spring training games with the Mets before he left for the WBC — and has had even fewer since — he said he valued working on his hitting with Griffey, who is serving as the team’s hitting coach.

McNeil said he had talked to Griffey about a few minor things in his swing and later felt “really good” during batting practice and in the batting cages. “We’ll see if they translate to a game,” he added.

Despite the potential downsides, perhaps more players will be willing to take the plunge and play for the United States in this quadrennial tournament going forward.

There were “probably plenty of players that wish they could play,” Arenado said. “This really is a great tournament. There’s no reason why the stars of our game should not be playing in this. I’m thankful that we got Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, the faces of our game that are playing this thing. If you’re throwing 96 to 100 in spring training, that works anywhere. So, there’s no reason why you can’t do that here and represent your country.”

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