PHOENIX — It’s better — or funnier, maybe — because Vance Worley was pitching, and you see, his name is kind of inherently silly, and he’s the kind of guy you might remember from the early 2010s Philadelphia Phillies, when he was known as “The Vanimal.”
That guy — with his rec specs and a uniform that would look like the costume designer phoned it in if it were worn by the opposition in a teen sports movie — struck out Mike Trout (Mike Trout!!!) swinging on a 90 mph sinker that caught a whole lot of the box in the very center of the digitally rendered strike zone grid on MLB Gameday.
Hitting is hard.
To the players, the World Baseball Classic does not feel like a playoff game. That’s not a knock on the tournament, necessarily, “but it's totally different,” as shortstop Trea Turner, whose Phillies went to the World Series last year, said before Team USA's first game Saturday.
In all seriousness: Trout’s presence on Team USA’s roster is conspicuous, even among All-Stars and MVPs. The understated outfielder has reigned as baseball’s paradigm of optimized production so unequivocally that it has shaped our modern understanding of excellence in the sport and for so long that years ago, the interesting conversation shifted from who is the best player in the game to who will be the next best player in the game.
Trout's participation in this tournament — which Major League Baseball is eager to promote — was a contributing factor in assembling a squad that looks, on paper, to be almost unbeatable. Yet Trout’s presence is notable at least as much for what the WBC can do for him as for what he can do for the WBC. That is to say: put him on a stage that is, if not quite as elevated as October, at least somewhere above a regular-season contest in Anaheim.
Trout has committed to playing his entire career with the Angels, who are seemingly committed to squandering that advantage by refusing to build effectively around him. If money were the issue (it’s not), Get Mike Trout To The Postseason would be a very lucrative GoFundMe.
So in lieu of the postseason, Angelenos can now see Trout in the international tournament. On Saturday, among a delightfully varied sea of jerseys, the prevalence of “Trouts” stood out. At least one Angels fan went with a deep cut for the true Trout Heads, with a jersey that featured his one-time Players’ Weekend nickname, “KIIIIIID.”
And fans had reason to think it would be a satisfying game. Team USA entered with high expectations for obvious reasons and especially in the early rounds, when they face, for instance, Team Great Britain, which is appearing in its first WBC.
That is where we found Trout, facing Worley with one out in the bottom of the first inning and Team USA trailing, thanks to a top-of-the-inning home run by Trayce Thompson (of Los Angeles both by birth and current employer; the WBC qualification guidelines are loose enough to not result in a team of moonlighting cricketers). It was Trout’s first time playing in a game with something greater than regular-season stakes since 2014.
Since then, Trout has suited up and seen his name written in the lineup 914 times, strode to the plate 3,964 times and accumulated 971 hits for a .302 batting average to pair with his 52.9 fWAR. To lean on a baseball cliche that couldn’t be more apt: That means the future Hall of Famer fails seven out of 10 times.
Against Worley, who last threw a pitch in the major leagues in 2017, Trout worked the count full before hacking ineffectively at a ball down the middle.
On Saturday, in his first World Baseball Classic appearance, Trout was 0-for-4. He also walked, stole a base and scored. His futility did nothing to impinge his chances at Cooperstown or hinder Team USA’s relatively unobstructed steamroll to a 6-2 victory (turns out Kyle Schwarber could've won it himself on a single swing). Elsewhere, half a world away, the most exciting man in baseball — someone who could change the trajectory of the sport’s global popularity — struck out against a Czech electrician.
There’s a cynical interpretation to this run-of-the-mill, isolated mediocrity: Baseball does not lend itself to do-or-die-style tournaments. This is a problem with the version played in (and then removed from and then reinstated on a very limited basis) the Olympics, and it’s a problem with the WBC. Some would say it’s even a problem with MLB’s own postseason.
But as a conclusion, that’s, frankly, a bummer in the face of the obvious upside to games that elicit so much unabashed enthusiasm from fans and players alike.
There’s a recurring joke whenever the Olympics roll around that the more obscure sports should feature an average person trying to pole vault or slalom so that audiences can have a baseline appreciation for how difficult the endeavor is. But baseball doesn’t let you forget. It’s hard-won in the fullest sense. The long regular season both elides and exacerbates that. By October, everyone has weathered so much failure yet has emerged ready to face an even greater gauntlet, still believing they can succeed. Fans, too, have been disappointed so many times but are ready to get hurt again if it means the chance to see their guys come through.
The WBC doesn’t have that backstory. But to love baseball is to know that every time you see even Mike Trout do the thing you’re hoping he will, it’s like lightning in a bottle.