The quarterfinal clash between the United States and Venezuela on Saturday night simultaneously represented everything wonderful and troubling about the World Baseball Classic.
LoanDepot Park, scarcely occupied for the hometown Miami Marlins on most nights, was packed to the brim with a pro-Venezuela sellout crowd. It watched Team USA win a thrilling, seesaw game 9-7 to advance to play Cuba in the semifinals Sunday. But sandwiched between the October-like delirium was a buzzkill that could alter the course of the upcoming Major League Baseball season for the defending World Series champions.
It happened with no outs in the bottom of the fifth inning. Venezuela, trailing 5-2, had runners at second and third bases against Team USA right-hander Daniel Bard. Houston Astros star second baseman José Altuve, Venezuela’s leadoff hitter, was at the plate. The place was bumping.
Bard, the Colorado Rockies’ closer, had already thrown a wild pitch during Altuve’s at-bat that bounced to the backstop. The next one bounced off Altuve’s right hand. The 2017 American League most valuable player dropped to the dirt, pounding the ground, writhing in pain. Suddenly, silence. Altuve immediately exited the game. Venezuela was left without one of its best players for the night. The Astros were left wondering whether they would be without their best player for the start of the regular season.
Three innings later, Trea Turner, Team USA’s No. 9 hitter, supplied another blow to the Venezuelans, smashing a go-ahead grand slam over the left-field wall. The former Dodgers shortstop yelled and hopped his way to first base. His teammates mobbed him at home plate. Team USA hitting coach Ken Griffey Jr. gave him a hug in the dugout.
The blast, the third grand slam for the United States in WBC history, was another mesmerizing sequence in this tournament, much like how the bottom of the fifth inning ended after Altuve’s injury.
Bard, whose career was derailed 12 years ago by the yips, threw another wild pitch that nearly hit Anthony Santander in a leg to bring home another Venezuela run. Santander eventually worked a walk to load the bases and chase Bard.
Luis Arraez welcomed Jason Adam with an RBI groundout before Salvador Pérez lined a score-tying double down the left-field line. Two pitches later, Ronadl Acuña Jr. launched a sacrifice fly to Mike Trout in deep center field to give Venezuela a 6-5 lead.
Arraez added a solo home run — his second homer of the night — off the right-field foul pole to double Venezuela’s lead. The Marlins infielder has never hit multiple home runs in a major or minor league game. The effort wasn’t enough.
Moments later, Venezuela announced that Altuve’s right hand was being evaluated. The Astros are expected to provide an update Sunday.
In the end, Altuve might join New York Mets closer Edwin Díaz as All-Stars who have suffered significant injuries in this WBC. Díaz tore the patellar tendon in his right knee celebrating Puerto Rico’s win over the Dominican Republic on Wednesday. He will miss the season after the Mets signed him to a five-year, $102-million contract in November.
Both are freak injuries in different ways. Could Altuve’s injury have happened in a spring training game? Of course. Could the game’s intensity have factored into Bard’s wildness? That’s possible too. But that doesn’t matter to the Astros. They are now left wondering how long they will be without him.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.