PEORIA, Ariz. — The World Baseball Classic can draw a variety of reactions from players, coaches, managers, front-office personnel and fans. Some love it. Some loathe it. Others wish it would just go away — which it isn’t.
But for many involved, it provides memories that won’t be forgotten. Perhaps it’s an unbelievable play made on a stage of something bigger than a regular-season game. Perhaps it’s the unmistakable feeling of nationalism and pride to represent one’s country in a sport that doesn’t always offer that many opportunities past the youth level.
For Yovani Gallardo, it was a chance to embrace his heritage while pitching for Mexico and showcasing his talents in front of a country that had never seen him pitch live.
After returning from Pool D play in Jalisco, Mexico, the veteran right-hander discussed the disappointment in his team being eliminated in rather dubious fashion. Bue he was ecstatic about the chance to pitch in his native country for the first time in his career.
“It was awesome,” he said. “I was maybe a little bit nervous, just for being the first time pitching in Mexico. Throughout my career, it was my first time to pitch in front of those fans. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed every moment of it. It’s something I won’t forget.”
Born in Penjamillo Degollado in the state of Michoacan — an area about 2 1/2 hours east of Guadalajara — Gallardo lived there till age 4 before moving with his family to Fort Worth, Texas, to join his father, Jorge, who had come to the United States a few years earlier.
Gallardo became a baseball standout at Trimble Tech High School and earned a scholarship to Texas Christian University. But after the Brewers drafted him in the second round, he passed on college baseball. Gallardo worked his way into the big leagues with the Brewers and has had a solid pro career: 10 seasons, 108-83 record and 3.79 career ERA.
But over all those years, he never pitched a single game in his native country, despite pitching for Mexico in the WBC in 2013.
He started the opening game of pool play for Mexico against Italy. When he jogged from the dugout at Estadio Charros de Jalisco and the crowd of 15,000 erupted in cheers and chants, Gallardo’s normally calm demeanor showed a bit of emotion.
“It was crazy,” he said. “It was loud. Everybody was in the game from the first pitch to the last pitch. It’s special to play in your own country. And it was the first game of a very big tournament. It was definitely exciting.”
Gallardo pitched four innings, giving up four runs on four hits with five strikeouts. He did allow three homers.
“I felt good,” he said. “I think I threw the ball pretty well. It was just staying ahead of guys. I made a couple of mistakes when I did fall behind.”
Mexico lost the game 10-9 and finished 1-2 in pool play. Their 11-9 win over Venezuela was supposed to be enough to force a tiebreaker game with Italy on Monday with the winner advancing to the second round of the tournament.
“During the game, we were told we had to win by at least two runs to force a tiebreaker against Italy and we all know how the game ended,” Gallardo said. “We ended up winning by two runs.”
That two-run margin was discussed on the MLB Network broadcast of the game and by the WBC official Twitter account. So Mexico thought its WBC hopes were still alive when Oliver Perez stranded two runners on base, striking out Robinson Chirinos and getting Jose Altuve to fly out to end the game.
“We were pretty pumped when the game was over,” Gallardo said. “We still had a chance to advance the second round by playing a tiebreaker. Everything came out saying it was us against Italy. But about 15 to 20 minutes after the game, some of the guys told us that Venezuela had protested.”
Venezuela maintained that it should advance to the tiebreaker. Since Mexico, Italy and Venezuela all finished 1-2 in pool play, the WBC took the two teams that allowed the fewest runs per inning in games played against each other as the tiebreaker. It’s far from a simple method of choosing. Mexico was informed that it had been eliminated. The euphoria of an emotional win was erased by an equation.
“We were kind of in shock,” Gallardo said. “We were told that as long as we won the game by two runs we would force the tiebreaker. Unfortunately, it didn’t end up that way. For whatever reason, the rules got misinterpreted or they just switched it. I don’t know.”
It left those affiliated with Mexico baseball furious. Adrian Gonzalez, the most recognizable player on the team, lashed out against the WBC to reporters covering the Dodgers on Wednesday upon his return.
“They’re trying to become the World Cup, but they’re not even close to being the Little League World Series,” he told them.
Gonzalez is now anti-WBC in every way.
“I’ll never do it again,” Gonzalez added. “It’s not worth it. I’ll tell anyone who asks, not to play.”
Gallardo wasn’t quite as furious.
“We knew going in that it was going to be a difficult game against a strong Venezuelan team with that offense that they have,” he said. “Getting a big win on Sunday, we had that mentality of going out and taking care of business and force that tiebreaker on Monday. We felt good. We got the big victory. We were going to feed off it. But for whatever reason, it happened that way. We were all pretty upset. It sucked. We were all excited, and 10 minutes later they changed their minds.”
Now the focus is on the 2017 season and a bounce-back campaign after struggling in 2016. Gallardo will start on Friday afternoon against the Diamondback at Salt River Field. The Mariners have a split squad that day with another team playing the Dodgers later that evening.
He stayed on his throwing schedule even with the absence for the WBC.
“I threw my normal bullpen on Saturday,” he said. “It’s just good to get back in here and get back in the swing of things. I’m looking forward to preparing for the season with the Mariners.”