They were chastised for not showing enough flair, ridiculed for being underachievers, and slammed for not having their greatest stars play for them.
No matter, all Team USA did was win Saturday evening, stunning the defending champion Dominican Republic, 6-3, Saturday night, and advancing to the championship round of the World Baseball Classic for only the second time in history.
They will play Japan at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium, with Puerto Rico and the Netherlands playing Monday. The two winners will meet Wednesday night for the WBC championship.
You can argue that this was USA’s greatest victory in the WBC, but while they were elated, they didn’t dance across the field in front of the sellout crowd of 43,002 at Petco Park.
This was the first time they won a win-or-go-home game in history, avenging a loss last week against the Dominican Republic, but there were no wild gestures or flamboyant gesticulations.
This is Team USA, which clinched a semifinal berth in its own respectful style, with 72-year-old manager Jim Leyland showing perhaps the most emotion at the end of the evening, pumping his right fist to the crowd while walking off the field.
“Some of the teams show physically a little more passion sometimes than we do,’’ Leyland said, “but don’t get that confused with really not being into it, and really not caring. It was a wonderful feeling. We’re going to the finals. We beat a great team.’’
Considering who they were playing, and what was at stake, it undoubtedly was the greatest victory in Team USA’s history in this tournament, now in its fourth rendition.
When it was over, at nearly 2:00 a.m. ET, they walked off the field exchanging handshakes, a few hugs, and realizing their accomplishment.
Enough of the talk about the players who declined an invitation to play for Team USA, or the ridicule from managers and GMs around baseball who want their players to have more playing time.
This is their team. The team representing the United States. And everything outside its confines is nothing but white noise.
“There were a lot of people that respectfully declined,’’ Leyland said, “and we’re not going to throw anybody under the bus. We’re going to honor the people that accepted and are here.
“We’re not talking about people that graciously declined. We have no problem with that. That’s their choice. But I’m talking about our team right now. Right now that’s the only team I care about.
“And these players that are here are the only players I care about right now.’’
Let the stars who didn’t want to come watch center fielder Adam Jones make perhaps the greatest catch you’ll see this entire season, robbing Baltimore Orioles teammate Manny Machado of a home run, and a sellout crowd of 43,002 go absolute bonkers .
Let them watch one of the most ferocious home runs you’ll ever see by Giancarlo Stanton, who hit the go-ahead, two-run shot into the second deck of the Western Metal Supply Co. in left field, leaving the crowd gasping for breath.
And watch the sheer joy in veteran outfielder Andrew McCutchen, whose Pittsburgh Pirates team lost two heart-breaking wild-card games in the last three years, while he broke the game open with a two-run double in the eighth.
Sure, it’s not the World Series. It’s not even the playoffs. But for one glorious cool evening in San Diego, it sure had the feeling of October baseball.
“Having the United States across my chest in a military city,’’ Jones says, “it’s a tremendous tribute not just to friends and family, but to the military and people out there fighting for us.
“Because at the end of the day, I’m not representing the Orioles. Cutch ain’t representing the Pirates, Stanton is not representing the Marlins.
“We’re representing the entire United States, and that right there is pretty special.’’
Those on Team USA, leaving their own clubs for the chance to win USA’s first gold medal in the WBC, will never forget this evening.
Certainly, they will be able to tell their kids, and grandkids one day, just what it was like to be there on the night Jones made one of the most spectacular catches you’ll ever see.
It happened in the seventh inning with USA clinging to a 4-2 lead. Machado, the Orioles’ third baseman, hit a soaring fly ball to deep center field. Machado dropped his bat, started to admire it, but suddenly realizing that the damp air might keep it going as far as he imagined.
Jones, running to the deepest part of the outfield until he could go no more, stopped at the 396 mark, jumped, stretched out his left arm as far as it could go, and the ball gently dropped into the glove.
Jones jumped up into the air and yelled. The crowd screamed. USA pitcher Tyler Clippard threw both hands over his head in disbelief. And Machado took off his helmet running to second base, and saluted his Baltimore teammate.
“I’m still in kind of shock that I even got to that ball,’’ Jones said. “I mean, off the bat I’m just like this ball’s hit really far, so just keep going, keep going. You know this California air’s going to slow it down, and just never quit.
“That’s just the style I play with. I don’t mind running into a wall or two. I just kept going after the ball.
“I’ve seen the replay after the game, and that was a hell of a catch.’’
It was almost a replica of the infamous Mike Trout catch at Camden Yards back on June 27, 2012, when he robbed Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy of a home run.
Yet, as Jones reminded everyone, that was simply a regular-season game. This was the game that vaulted USA into the championship round.
“I remember that catch Trout made,’’ Jones said, “it was pretty impressive. But that was the third inning of just a random game. This was on a different scale, different magnitude.’’
The catch, Dominican manager Tony Pena said, that changed the game, preventing a comeback. One batter later, Robinson Cano hit a home run over the left-field fence, meaning the Dominican Republic was within inches of back-to-back homers and a tie ballgame.
“A lot of times it’s not where you make the play,’’ Leyland says, “it’s when you make the play. That just took a little wind out of their sails.’’
This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.