VIERA, Fla. — From the outset, the Washington Nationals have maintained strong support of the World Baseball Classic. Even four months ago, general manager Mike Rizzo was emphatic that if his players could help Team USA field the strongest team, he’d be more than willing to let them go.
But with 40 percent of their starting rotation now committed to Team USA, the Nationals’ attention to the tournament has become much more personal.
Ross Detwiler joined Gio Gonzalez on Team USA’s roster Tuesday, forcing the Nationals go through the process of tweaking their schedules and getting over the added layer of worry that comes with shipping their pitchers out during a time that is so integral to their preparation for the season ahead.
“Obviously, they’re your boys. You like to keep them close,” manager Davey Johnson said, adding he was “surprised they didn’t take more.”
But players declining invitations or withdrawing from the tournament altogether has become a hot-button issue, particularly for Team USA. And for pitchers, whose progress in the spring is much more incremental than position players, it’s always been a dicey proposition. Team USA’s starting rotation, while solid, is missing stars like Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and David Price.
“Baseball players have an internal clock,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter told The Baltimore Sun last week, implying that the WBC may disrupt it.
Not to mention the threat of injury and the concern that pitching in games of such magnitude could rush a player to perform in ways their body isn’t ready to.
“We present the facts, tell them what’s important, and away they go,” Showalter said.
When Detwiler woke up Tuesday morning to a text from Tony Clark, a Major League Baseball Players Association official, asking if he wanted to play for his country, he was ecstatic.
“We all thought it through and it was still a ‘yes,’ so I’m pretty happy about that.”
Detwiler will leave Nationals camp March 4 to journey to Arizona for the opening round, and Gonzalez will join Team USA on March 12 if it advances to the second round in Miami. Outfielder Roger Bernadina, who is playing for the Netherlands, leaves camp Sunday.
The Nationals told Detwiler they wanted him to work this spring on incorporating more of his off-speed pitches and his change-up early, instead of relying so heavily on his fastball. They reiterated Tuesday that where he’s doing that work, whether in the Grapefruit League or the WBC, doesn’t matter. They’re still going to be making sure it gets done.
“The only issue that I have really with pitchers pitching in those kind of tournaments is the intensity of how you’re going to throw,” Rizzo said. “It’s hard to tell these supreme athletes you’re only supposed to be throwing 75-80 percent of your regular routine when they’ve got an opposing batter ahead and wearing ‘USA’ on the front of your shirt.
“We’re going to make sure they’re prepared, both mentally and physically, for the workload and the intensity.”
In discussing it with their pitchers, the Nationals took into account the way the WBC schedule was set up, how it would fit into the ones they’d established, and who they would be sending them off to. With Joe Torre managing, Greg Maddux serving as the pitching coach and Marcel Lachemann as the bullpen coach, they felt confident.
“The staff over at Team USA, they’ve been around the block once or twice,” Rizzo said. “I look at it as the fact that we’re humbled and flattered that Team USA wants two of our starting pitchers on their ballclub. We think it’s vitally important that the USA is well represented.”
“It’s an honor to get to pick [Maddux’s] brain,” Gonzalez said last week. “I was telling [McCatty], ‘Cat, I’m leaving you for someone better.’”
When Johnson managed Team USA in 2009, he said it was very difficult to keep all of the players in line with their preparation for their individual seasons because they played just eight games over the course of 23 days. This year, from the first game of pool play until the championship, everything will be wrapped up in 12 days.
The Nationals had planned for Detwiler to make his first spring start Feb. 27, but they adjusted that to the 26th so he could start March 3 as well before heading to Arizona and pitching March 9. Gonzalez received permission to skip the tournament’s first round, staying with the Nationals for three starts.
They communicated their concerns to Torre, Maddux and Lachemann and figured out a way they could fit the pieces together as smoothly as possible.
“International play is always really exciting,” said Johnson, who also managed in the Olympics. “Because you learn baseball is played at a pretty high level in a lot of places. And it’s really exciting knowing you’re out there representing your country as well as the Washington Nationals.”