For the 2023 World Baseball Classic, Team USA went the route of the original Dream Team that assembled the greatest American players in basketball for the 1992 Summer Olympics. Crafting the baseball equivalent of placing Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird on the same hardwood, United States has used this playbook for putting stars together on the same diamond.
Mike Trout, one of the greatest players of all-time. Mookie Betts, one of the greatest players of his generation. Nolan Arenado, arguably the greatest defensive third baseman of all-time. Paul Goldschmidt, reigning National League MVP. Trea Turner, one of the most recent players to receive a $300 million deal.
Toss in a few All-Star pitchers and the reigning WBC champs are still one of the favorites to reach the Championship Game. Another win there and they’ll become just the second country to win consecutive tournaments after Japan won the inaugural pair in 2006 and 2009.
According to Team USA general manager Tony Reagins, one of the key players this go-round for America is Colorado Rockies’ left-hander Kyle Freeland.
“I had some conversations with (manager) Buddy Black about him, (Assistant GM) Danny Montgomery, amongst other folks,” Reagins said at a WBC media event during the Winter Meetings. “That includes a lot of the people that he faces in the division and I asked them, ‘Is he a fit on this club?’ And the answer was a resounding yes.”
For Freeland, only the third Rockies’ pitcher to ever participate with Team USA and the first starting pitcher, the wheels started turning for the Thomas Jefferson High School grad once the best player in the game was ready to be all in.
“It was one of those things last year when (players) first started coming out, when they announced Mike Trout would play in the World Baseball Classic,” Freeland said this Spring. ”I talked to Bud and told him it was something I would be interested in and could possibly be a part of.”
Team USA manager Mark DeRosa immediately recognized the value of a player like Freeland on his roster. The first time skipper already had an arsenal of starters tabbed for the task of winning it all – all of whom would have pitching restrictions preventing them from going deep into ballgames – but he’d need still some reliable pitchers with flexibility to work multiple innings from the bullpen.
“I’ve followed Kyle for a while now. His passion to want to be a part of this is the biggest thing for me: him wanting to get ready early and contribute to the team,” DeRosa shared in December. “That’s been the overriding theme with a lot of these guys from a pitching perspective. ‘Whatever you need me to do.’”
During the first game of the 2023 WBC for Team USA, DeRosa turned to Freeland in the sixth inning of a 5-1 ballgame against Great Britain.
Freeland got a quick out on the second pitch he threw, a pop up that landed in the mitt of former teammate Nolan Arenado. One pitch later, it was a patented ground ball to the left side that Arenado easily scooped and tossed to first. The familiarity felt good for all parties involved.
“Definitely don’t have to worry about any sort of defensive or offensive liabilities out there at all,” Freeland smirked when discussing being back with Arenado. “It’s awesome to get to play with Nolan again, which is gonna be a lot of fun getting reunited. I was really looking forward to being with him and (Trevor) Story, getting all three of us back together. I know (Daniel) Bard was probably looking forward to seeing them again as well. It’s gonna be a lot of fun being around those kind of guys.”
While Bard was healthy enough to participate with Team USA, Story had to remove his name from contention after undergoing right elbow surgery this offseason.
As for the rest of Freeland’s outing on Saturday, he induced another 5-3 putout started by Arenado, his teammate in Colorado from 2017-20. Ironically, that easy ground ball would produce the only run allowed over his three innings during a 6-2 win for USA.
Part of the 29-year-old’s success was pitching in a ballpark that was familiar to him. Chase Field has been home to several solid outings during his six year career. Coupled with being only a few miles from his Spring Training home, having some familiarity on one of the biggest stages of his career was an advantage.
“I’ve thought about that,” Freeland said before his first appearance in red, white and blue. “It’s one of those environments where it’s not going to be me in a stadium that I’ve never been in, a clubhouse I’ve never been in or pitching on a mound that I’ve ever been on. There’s a comfortability aspect to it for me.”
Though some have noted that Team USA lacks a superstar rotation that benefit from the likes of Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Shane Bieber, Corbin Burnes and Jacob deGrom, their coaching staff more than makes up for it.
Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. serves as the hitting coach, five-time World Series winner Andy Pettitte is the pitching coach, coaches Brian McCann and Dave Righetti have combined for nine All-Star selections during their playing careers and one of the top third base coaches in the game in Dino Ebel is also part of the staff.
With a win on Wednesday night against Colombia (1-2), USA (2-1) will earn a spot in the quarterfinals. On three days rest, Freeland may be called upon to give multiple innings once again, especially after having hit a pitch count of only 29 last Saturday.
At that point, USA would be three wins away from keeping the silver World Baseball Classic trophy in the land where the sport was created.
Elias Díaz was critical in Colombia’s opening 5-4 win against Mexico on Saturday. His RBI-double sparked a three-run rally in the fifth to give his country their lone WBC victory so far.
Díaz, 32, is the fourth-oldest player on the roster that brings tons value behind the plate, especially when considering his inexperienced pitching staff. It’s for that reason Colombia manager Jolbert Cabrera was so pleased to welcome Díaz to his club.
“The kid is unbelievable. Defensively he’s one of the best, for me,” explained Cabrera, a eight-year MLB veteran who played mostly with Cleveland. “(Díaz) calls a good game, he’s better than average behind the plate, a really good arm.”