FORT MYERS, Fla. — Red Sox lefthander Richard Bleier has a worthwhile perspective on the World Baseball Classic, having first joined Team Israel in 2012 for a qualifying tournament while a minor leaguer, and again this year as a major leaguer with seven years of experience.
“It was fun. It’s incredible how much it has grown,” Bleier said Saturday. “It’s such a unique experience, definitely. An abundance of positives all the way around.”
As a South Florida resident who played three seasons for the Marlins, Bleier said the atmosphere at loanDepot Park was unlike anything he had seen.
“Our game against Puerto Rico was wild,” he said. “The crowd was so loud. For the guys who had not been in the big leagues, it was a great experience. But we all enjoyed it.”
Israel was 1-3 in the tournament, beating Nicaragua and giving Venezuela a good game before losing, 5-1. Blowout losses against Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic did not dim any spirits.
“We had a 19-year-old kid [Jacob Steinmetz, a Diamondbacks prospect] who struck out Manny Machado,” Bleier said. “He was standing on the mound with the biggest grin. That was so fun to see.
“For a country like Israel, maybe more people want to play baseball after seeing that. It definitely helps create a fan base.”
Red Sox manager Alex Cora was emotionally invested in every pitch of the WBC in 2017, when he was Puerto Rico’s general manager.
This year he has watched remotely, settling in front of a television on most nights.
“It’s becoming bigger,” Cora said. “When you have [Mike] Trout and [Shohei] Ohtani, the big boys are playing. I think TV has done an amazing job covering the event. The venues, too.”
That point seems inarguable. Miami has been the perfect spot for a multicultural event, with the semifinals starting there on Sunday. Tokyo and Phoenix were good selections, too.
Cora marveled at how media outlets in Puerto Rico led their daily coverage with the tournament. The usual news of the day was put aside.
“Everything negative that is happening is gone,” he said. “It unites countries and hopefully that fever gets here. It’s getting here but not as passionate as other countries.
“Hopefully people [in the United States] buy into the tournament.”
Cora has been impressed with the level of play, especially from the pitchers.
“Emotionally, it’s awesome. They really play for their country. They do everything. It’s a great tournament,” he said.
The Sox believe right fielder Alex Verdugo will benefit. He has started all five games for Mexico and is 2 for 19 with three RBIs. Some of that was bad luck given that he has struck out once.
“It’s good to see Dugie moving the way he’s moving,” Cora said. “With all the joking around, he’s moving well; he’s running the bases well. He’s in a good spot.
“From afar watching, we’re very excited about this player. Just got to keep healthy and then we’ll go.”
Because Verdugo has been one of Mexico’s primary players, his workload is where it would normally be for spring training.
Verdugo, Jarren Duran, and Masataka Yoshida are the only Red Sox players still in the WBC. They’ll be on the same field Monday when Mexico faces Japan in the second semifinal.
“I feel like whatever happens this has been a success,” Bleier said. “You see smaller countries building up their programs and more good players getting involved. It’s been such a positive for everybody.”