Bloomquist fits mold of Torre's Team USA player
Versatile shortstop eager to represent country can fill many roles in Classic
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. –- When manager Joe Torre and the top brass of Team USA put together this year's edition of the squad for the upcoming World Baseball Classic, Torre had two criteria for the coaching staff and 28 players.
He sought guys who unequivocally want to play for their country and want to win.
D-backs shortstop Willie Bloomquist fit well in both categories.
"The main thing is to get back to our teams healthy, but I'm certainly going into this with the mindset to win," Bloomquist said Monday, when he joined D-backs pitchers and catchers reporting to Salt River Fields. "Based on the roster, they're all guys I've played against. They're competitors. They're going to want to win, too.
"I'm out to win this thing. We haven't shown well the past two Classics. Our lineup is perfectly capable of doing that. Hopefully guys will step it up, play well, and we'll make some noise and win in this thing."
That has to be a concerto to Torre's baseball senses. Japan won the first two Classics, defeating Cuba in 2006 and arch-rival Korea in '09. Even without a Major League player, the Japanese are entering the tournament believing they can win it again, without the likes of Ichiro Suzuki, Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka, the MVP of the first two tournaments.
Japan opens in Fukuoka on March 2 in a bracket with Brazil, China and Cuba. With the second round slated for Tokyo Dome, the Japanese won't play a tournament game stateside until the semifinals on March 17 or 18 in San Francisco. That's if they get that far.
The U.S. schedule couldn't be any more convenient for Bloomquist and new D-backs teammate Heath Bell, who is also on the American roster. Team USA gathers at Salt River Fields on March 3 and has its first practice the next day. The Americans play exhibition games against the White Sox at Camelback Ranch on March 5 and against the Rockies at night in Scottsdale on March 6.
Their round-robin first round against Canada, Mexico and Italy opens in Arizona on March 7. All the U.S. games are crosstown at Chase Field: Against Mexico on the evening of March 8, a night game against Italy on March 9, and a day game against Canada on March 10.
If the U.S. wins out, it's on to Marlins Park in Miami, where Bloomquist and Bell could meet D-backs catcher Miguel Montero, part of a deep Venezuelan roster that opens the tournament in a group with the Dominican Republic, Spain and Puerto Rico.
"I'm pretty excited about that," Montero said. "In 2009, I didn't get invited. Now I made it and I'm looking forward to going there and representing my country."
Arizona teammates Gerardo Parra and possibly newcomer Martin Prado will join Montero on the Venezuela roster, but reliever David Hernandez committed to Team Mexico.
For Bloomquist, it's just like a homestand playing in front of the local fans.
"It's an honor, especially when you get a phone call asking if you'd represent your country," he said. "That's about as good an honor as you can get. Obviously, I'm thrilled. Whatever role or capacity they want me to fill remains to be seen, but I'm excited to do whatever is asked of me."
Those phone calls came directly to each player from Torre, the veteran manager who is now Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations. Torre said at first that he wanted to get a sense of individual commitment. If he sensed any wavering in that part of it, he went on to the next player.
Unlike past editions of Team USA, Torre didn't want a roster of All-Stars. He wanted his starting nine with a versatile contingent of players on the bench.
Bloomquist, who said he's healthy after missing nearly the entire final two months of the 2012 season because of a bad back, will slot in behind Jimmy Rollins at shortstop, and is a good fit as a key backup.
"He's a very determined player. He goes all out," D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said. "That's certainly his strength, yet it's his weakness. He just can't throttle it and it forces me to do that. I'm sure I'll talk to Joe. Willie understands, though, after what he went through last year with his back. I've been scaling mountains with him this year. He's really healthy.
"He's very versatile. That's why Joe picked him. He can play three infield positions and all three outfield positions. Look at the makeup of our team: We're very versatile, as well."
With one day of practice before playing exhibition games, the U.S. always enters the tournament with that distinct disadvantage. China has been working out in the area since last Monday and will start playing exhibition games this week. The Dutch opened camp in Scottsdale on Sunday. Korea and Japan are already at it.
The U.S. will have to rely on grit, determination and talent as it plays itself into shape with a group of players coming together after three weeks in their individual camps.
"It'll be a little bit different," Bloomquist said. "The Latin American countries just finished up the Caribbean World Series. So a lot of those guys are in pretty good shape right now. And a lot of those other teams have been going at it by the time we get together. That's the way it is. We have obligations prior to that. We're just going to have to adjust and be ready to go."
Bloomquist scaled the nearby White Mountain with Gibson this winter during an expedition when the two men camped overnight and hunted elk. Winning the World Baseball Classic is his next mountain to climb.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.