PHOENIX – Each first-round site of the World Baseball Classic had its glamor fixture. For Pool C in Phoenix, everyone had Sunday night’s game between the United States and Mexico circled on the calendar. Mexico certainly did, and then circled the bases several times for good measure.
Joey Meneses homered twice, while Randy Arozarena went 3-for-5 with two doubles and three runs scored to lead an impressive offensive outburst by Mexico. Patrick Sandoval and Javier Assad kept the U.S. off the board long enough for Mexico to win 11-5 and maintain control of its own destiny. Had Mexico merely beaten the U.S., it would’ve constituted an upset but not a shocking one. It was the nature of the win that was so remarkable.
At one point, Mexico led 11-2 and had a runner on second base who, had he scored, would have invoked the WBC’s mercy rule. And even that scenario understates the extent to which Mexico outhit, out-pitched, and out-fielded its northern neighbors. Team USA’s worst WBC loss since an 11-1 defeat to Puerto Rico in 2009 leaves the heavy Pool C favorites in serious danger of first-round elimination.
Both teams entered this game coming off a disappointing Saturday: Team USA trailed early against Great Britain before sleepwalking to a 6-2 win that looked even less impressive once Canada mercy ruled the British 18-8 the following afternoon. Hours earlier, Mexico had dropped a 5-4 10-inning heartbreaker to Colombia. Considering that Colombia was the biggest threat to Mexico’s chances of advancing, and Mexico had by far its best pitcher — Julio Urías — on the hill for the defeat, the tournament-opening game carried immense leverage.
Mexico entered the 2023 WBC running on more than a decade of disappointment, finishing last in its pool in both 2013 and 2017. But its rotation of Urías, Sandoval, Taijuan Walker, and José Urquidy is arguably the strongest in the pool, and a lineup that includes Arozarena, Alex Verdugo, Meneses, and Luis Urías promised to give opponents fits — even after the late withdrawal of Alejandro Kirk.
And that’s what happened. In the early innings, Mexico alternated between two modes of offense: well-placed singles and Meneses clobbering the ball. Mexico had four singles in the first three innings. American infielders got hands on all of them, but they were neither able to make a play nor charged with an error.
Meneses accounted for one of those singles, as well as the two hits that determined the course of the game: a first-inning home run off Nick Martinez that put Mexico on top 2-0, and a three-run bomb in the fourth that broke the game completely open. Meneses, sensing the moment, ripped off a bat toss to shame Wladimir Balentien.
For the first few days of WBC play, one of the biggest stories of the tournament was the atmosphere for its most important games, in Tokyo and Taipei, and in Miami for the Pool D game between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic on Saturday. The contrast between the singing and dancing of those games and Team USA’s sleepy opener against Great Britain was obvious, but the grudge match against Mexico promised an atmosphere to rival anything in the tournament thus far.
Both sets of fans were loud to start the game, but three batters in Meneses’ first-inning home run, like Trayce Thompson’s the night before, took the American fans out of the game. What followed was a brief period of noisy celebration for Mexico, then two and a half innings of anxious rumbling as the game remained close enough for the potent American lineup to erase the gap with a swing.
That anxiety disappeared with Meneses’ second home run. In the top of the fourth, the stadium was rocking. In the top of the fifth, Mexico’s fans were blanketing Chase in song. When Meneses came to the plate again in the top of the sixth, it was to chants of “Joey! Joey!” and “MVP!”
And as Mexico’s fans seemed more engaged than the American fans — and given the contour of the game, that was to be expected — Mexico’s players kept finding exceptional moments while their American counterparts came up short.
Arozarena legged out an infield single in the first and bashed a 107.7 mph double in the fourth, and in both cases came around to score on a Meneses home run. In the inning after Meneses broke the game open, Assad entered and threw three scoreless innings; 10 of the 37 pitches he threw came in faster than anything he managed in the majors in 2022. Center fielder Alek Thomas recorded no fewer than 10 putouts, ranging from the routine to the kind that inspire jokes that start with “Three quarters of the world is covered by water…”
The Americans, meanwhile, couldn’t respond. None of Mexico’s four early infield singles were easy plays, but all of them could’ve been outs if executed perfectly. After Kyle Tucker and Tim Anderson cut the Mexico lead in half with back-to-back hits in the second, the Americans didn’t manage another base hit until Mike Trout singled to lead off the sixth. After Tucker tripled and scored in the second, no American player reached second base until Will Smith homered in the seventh.
After Clayton Kershaw and Logan Webb pulled out of the WBC, pitching was never going to be the strength of the American roster. But even so, the pitching staff — and manager Mark DeRosa’s handling of same — let Team USA down.
Nick Martinez is less accomplished than the other American starters, but a perfectly defensible choice to start the most important game of the group stage. The 65-pitch limit in this round makes Lance Lynn and Miles Mikolas less valuable, and Martinez has been exceptional in the sort of middle-endurance appearance he’d be asked to make. Ultimately, he got beaten by some bad batted-ball luck and Meneses having the best night of his life. It happens.
But with the game in the balance and with two days until the next dangerous lineup comes up, DeRosa called on Brady Singer to pitch the fourth inning, and Mexico teed off on him. Not only did DeRosa not call for help during that inning, he sent Singer back out for another. The counterargument: In the top of the eighth, after Smith’s home run planted hope that the U.S. might at least close the gap, DeRosa called on Daniel Bard, who saved 34 games and posted a 1.79 ERA in 2022, and Bard fared even worse than Singer had. Mexico just beat the brakes off American pitching all night.
Mexico has a strong roster — before the game got totally out of hand in the eighth inning, Mexico used 13 players, all current big leaguers. A few of those are first-division starters. But if there were a draft of the position players on these two teams, how many from Team USA would go off the board before the first Mexico player? Double digits, surely. This was still an upset, and by far the most emphatic loss suffered by any team viewed as a serious pre-tournament contender.
For Mexico, this victory doesn’t secure qualification to the next round, but getting the advantage over the U.S. in either a two- or three-team tiebreaker assures that Mexico will qualify if it beats Canada and Great Britain, the two weakest teams in the group.
If Mexico had beaten Colombia on Saturday, letting a starter soak up a couple innings in a blowout wouldn’t have been a big deal. But the most likely scenario now is that the U.S., Mexico, and Colombia will all end up finishing the group stage 3-1, with only two teams able to advance. The tiebreaker is runs allowed divided by defensive outs recorded in games among the tied teams. And because the tiebreaker is runs allowed and not run differential, the three-run American rally in the eighth rally helped the U.S. cause not in the slightest. The damage was done when the U.S. allowed more runs in one game against Mexico than Mexico had in its games against the U.S. and Colombia put together:
Current Pool C Tiebreaker Scenario
Had the U.S. narrowed the margin to four, any win by shutout against Colombia would’ve been enough to advance. Now, thanks to the Mexico-Colombia game going 10 innings, the U.S. needs to run the table and for one of the following two things to happen: One of Mexico or Colombia has to drop a game against Canada or Great Britain, or the U.S. has to beat Colombia by eight runs or more.
Failing that, the U.S. would be knocked out in the group stage on home soil. Whether that would constitute the most disappointing performance ever by a WBC heavy hitter is open to debate. Venezuela also got knocked out in the first round in 2013, and went 1-2 where the U.S. could fail to advance by going 3-1. But that came on the road against much tougher competition. So too the Dominican Republic’s first-round exit in 2009, which came thanks to two losses to the Netherlands in a double-elimination format.
The WBC is young enough that there’s a novelty to the specific kind of disappointment the U.S. will, barring a miracle, face. But this sort of thing happens in international sports all the time, including to the U.S. in basketball following the 2004 Olympics. What usually happens then is a recommitment to taking the international game seriously.
But the U.S. roster for this tournament, with the first-time participation of Mike Trout and Mookie Betts — and originally Kershaw and Bryce Harper — was supposed to constitute just such a recommitment. Instead, the strongest lineup in the tournament has struggled to put runs on the board, and has appeared to take victory for granted against less talented opponents.
Mexico has had 10 years to consider what happens to talented teams that can’t figure it out at the WBC, and has now delivered a vivid reminder to the U.S. Given the fierce rivalry between these countries across multiple sports, it’s a lesson Team USA should feel in its kneecaps for years to come, whether it ultimately escapes elimination or not.