WBC 2023: How Team USA is managing MLB playoff-level pressure

PHOENIX -- Just over five months since he made his first MLB postseason appearance with the New York Mets, Pete Alonso was gearing up for another pressure-filled stretch of baseball -- this time, for Team USA.

"My first playoff experience was this past season," Alonso told the gathered crowd at World Baseball Classic media day. "It was only three games and it was a short-lived playoff experience. And after we were done, the feeling I came back with was, 'Man, I want more of this.'

"Because that playoff baseball feeling, it's addictive. And I want to put myself in every opportunity to be in those high-pressure, high-leverage situations. I mean, pressure is a privilege."

Longtime St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright, an experienced MLB playoff veteran, was sitting next to Alonso and nodded in agreement. When the news conference ended, Wainwright was still smiling about what his Team USA teammate had said.

"Pressure is a privilege," he said to Alonso as they got up from their chairs. "Man, that's good."

It's an attitude the entire team has embraced during the opening round of the WBC. As the defending champions from 2017, anything less than a deep run for Team USA would be considered a disappointment. With each pressure-packed at-bat, scrutinized pitching decision or unifying rally, it has become clear that October arrived early this year.

"There's going to be some big games coming up," all-world outfielder Mike Trout said earlier in the week. "We don't always get that at this time of year."

And the games keep getting bigger for Team USA, which has had to be in win-or-go-home mode for much of this WBC. After a surprise loss to Mexico, the U.S. went from group favorite to in danger of being eliminated with another slipup. The squad rebounded with wins over Canada and Mexico to reach the knockout rounds. The U.S. will now face Cuba in the semis (7 p.m., Sunday) after a dramatic come-from-behind quarterfinal victory over Venezuela on Saturday night.

For some on Team USA -- including Trout -- these games are a chance to experience a playoff-caliber environment they have not had often during their major league careers.

"I was talking to [Kyle] Schwarber, who has a lot of postseason experience," center fielder Cedric Mullins said. "He was telling me, nothing beats it. Now I'm feeling it. I understand it a little."

One of six players on the roster who have no MLB playoff experience, Mullins hit a triple on the very first pitch he saw during a nine-run first-inning in a must-win game against Canada. White Sox infielder Tim Anderson, who has played in seven total MLB playoff games, helped spark the U.S. by providing two hits at the plate and playing second base for the first time in his career.

"It does feel like the playoffs, a little," Anderson said. "You never know when you're going to get back there, so you have to embrace it."

Anderson isn't the only player willing to change his routine to help the team -- key in both the MLB postseason in October and the WBC in March. Normally a starter for the Kansas City Royals, Brady Singer is pitching out of the bullpen for Team USA. He struggled against Mexico, giving up four runs in two innings, but his willingness to adapt allowed manager Mark DeRosa to set up his pitching to cover enough innings to advance despite challenging limitations across his pitching staff.

"A little different role coming out of the bullpen," Singer said. "Wouldn't want to do it any other way. I just want to pitch."

A teammate of Singer on the Royals, 22-year-old Bobby Witt Jr. knew that his WBC experience might come with few opportunities to make an impact on the field -- but that hasn't stopped the youngest player on the U.S. roster from soaking up the playoff-like atmosphere.

"I'm getting October in March," said Witt, who hit a pinch-hit RBI double in his first at-bat against Mexico. "It's an honor to be part of this team. The guys told me you have to enjoy every moment because you never know when it's going to be the last time to play in games like this."

For even the most playoff-tested members of the Team USA roster, there is an element that adds pressure the players haven't often felt in October: the one-and-done format of the knockout rounds.

"I haven't played in a tournament in a long time," said Team USA and Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Trea Turner, who hit a quarterfinal grand slam that put his team in the semifinals of this tournament. "It's a funny concept because we're not used to it."

"[In MLB] you play six, seven months to play in [the] postseason. Now it's just a sprint. You're in there and you're wearing a different jersey and you have guys from different teams. You're trying to come together. There's such a unique experience."

And instead of at the end of a long season, it's coming at the very beginning. After three years of canceled or abbreviated spring trainings, this year a select group of players have something even more impactful: meaningful games.

"To be able to feel that right off the rip and during a normal spring training time, it's a rare opportunity, especially with this team," Alonso said. "It's an extremely rare opportunity. And hopefully I can learn from this experience and just continue to chase those feelings."