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Colombia’s Guillermo Zuñiga shines in a World Baseball Classic David vs. Goliath moment

PHOENIX — Mike Trout striking out twice in Team USA’s win over Great Britain wasn’t the biggest story of Day 1 of the World Baseball Classic at Chase Field.

It wasn’t the most surprising thing to happen. And it certainly wasn’t the most important thing on a day when the USA took care of business and Colombia shocked Mexico in extra innings, a 5-4 thriller that we’ll come back to in a moment. 

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Still . . . Mike Trout struck out twice vs. Great Britain. He’s one of the five best players in the major leagues, but in his first at-bat, he went down swinging against Vance Worley, the 35-year-old who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2017. And in the fifth inning, he struck out swinging again, this time against 23-year-old Ryan Long, who spent all of 2022 throwing with the Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds, an Orioles affiliate. Long was the team’s player of the year, but pretty sure nobody expected that matchup to favor the country of tea drinkers. 

And it doesn’t even mean anything. I know this. Mike Trout is going to be just fine. He had a bad day, he hasn’t forgotten how to hit. The two strikeouts would already be an afterthought, if not for me bringing it up again. 

But it’s just so fitting for the WBC, a tournament that often pits David vs. Goliath, but also David vs. David and sometimes even Goliath vs. Goliath. In what other contest that matters would we see matchups like this? 

Here’s one moment that will stick with us long after Day 1 is a memory.

The Strikeout: Mexico vs. Colombia

Guillermo Zuñiga was given a major league contract by the Cardinals this offseason despite the fact that he was entering his Age 25 season and had never pitched above Double-A. We saw why St. Louis believes in the big right-hander in Colombia’s shocking-on-paper-but-not-shocking-on-the-field win over heavily favored Mexico in the opener. 

Zuñiga, who had pitched in the Dodgers’ organization since 2018 and in Atlanta’s system the two years before that, pitched two unforgettable scoreless innings for Colombia. He struck out four while allowing just one hit and one intentional walk. And the 10th inning, of course, started with a magic runner on second base. 

“He showed a lot of heart,” Colombia manager Jolbert Cabrera said. “Unbelievable performance by that kid. You’re going to see a lot of him. You’re going to see a lot of him starting today.”

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The at-bat that stole the show, that happened in the ninth inning. With one on and two outs, Mexico leadoff batter Randy Arozarena — a right-handed hitter — walked toward the plate. The crowd, decidedly pro-Mexico, roared in anticipation. Arozarena already had a home run and a double in the game, both hits with an exit velocity north of 110 mph. And everybody in baseball remembers his incredible 2020 postseason, when he carried the Rays into the World Series with a dominant October. 

Cabrera opted to intentionally walk him, bringing up Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo, a left-handed hitter. It’s not often you’ll see that, giving the righty-lefty platoon advantage to the hitter. Especially when that left-handed hitter had tied the game in his previous at-bat with an RBI single. 

But it’s also not often that you’ll see a pitcher respond like Zuñiga did. He threw three pitches to Verdugo, and the six-year MLB veteran looked as overmatched as you’ll ever see. 

Three swinging strikes, all at least 100 mph, the final one at 102. 

“We had a conversation (Friday) during our practice,” Cabrera said, “and I told him that he was going to be the man that he was going to take us to the next level, because we never have a guy like that before. Now we’ve got a guy that’s going 99, 100, 101, 102. And he can go toe to toe with anybody.”

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Colombia is off on Sunday and then will play Great Britain in the early game on Monday. Win that and get to 2-0, and that’s a big step toward a possible spot in the next round. 

“It means a lot to us,” said veteran catcher Jorge Alfaro, who had a pair of hits and scored three of Colombia’s five runs. “This is a country that’s known for soccer a lot. But at the same time we just go out there and tried to show everybody and put that in their mind, that we’re going out there. We’re not afraid to play baseball and we can play baseball.”


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