By DAVID BRANDT AP Sports Writer
PHOENIX — Mike Trout was asked to be a part of Team USA for the World Baseball Classic.
He didn’t have to be.
The 31-year-old slugger knew he wanted to join this group ever since he watched the U.S. win the 2017 WBC title, beating Puerto Rico, 8-0, in the championship game. The follow-up tournament was delayed two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I felt like I wanted to be out there and experience how much fun they were having,” Trout said. “I told myself, before they even asked me, if I got the opportunity, I was going to try to do it.
“It’s special to me and my family, wearing U.S.A. across your chest. It’s going to be fun.”
It’s also a chance for the Angels star to play some high-stakes baseball, which has eluded him for much of his career despite personal success. The U.S. opens its WBC title defense against Great Britain on Saturday night (6 p.m. PT, Fox/Ch. 11) at Chase Field.
They’re a part of Pool C, which also includes Canada, Mexico and Colombia. The top two teams after a four-game, round-robin competition will advance to the quarterfinals in Miami.
Trout is expected to be in the middle of Saturday’s lineup. He’s slowly grown from a young phenom who made his MLB debut at 19 in 2009 into a mature star. His commitment to playing in the tournament was instrumental in attracting a lineup that includes the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado and New York Mets slugger Pete Alonso.
“He’ll go down as one of the greatest players of all time,” U.S. manager Mark DeRosa said. “I’m in awe of watching the ball coming off the bat.”
There are only two players on the roster from that 2017 WBC-winning team – Goldschmidt and Arenado. The rest represent a younger version of U.S. baseball excellence.
DeRosa said it’s a juggling act making sure the entire star-studded roster gets enough work. The 30 players are still getting ready for the upcoming MLB season, but DeRosa said he hopes he can create an atmosphere where they’re ready to embrace being a part of the tournament.
“I want them to lose themselves in this,” the manager said.
“Offensively, we have the weapons where you don’t have to be the hero,” DeRosa said. “I watch these guys control the zone every night. I watched these pitchers not give in every night.”
Trout denies he’s a big reason others wanted to play on this U.S. team, which is typical of his low-key personality. He initially wanted to headline the roster with friend and fellow superstar Bryce Harper, but the Phillies slugger had to miss the tournament because he’s recovering from elbow surgery.
It was not hard to fill his spot.
“There’s not a single guy wearing this jersey that didn’t call us wanting to be a part of it,” DeRosa said. “There were no parameters. Or, I’ll come if I get A, B and C. They just want to win.”
Even on a roster full of stars, Trout stands out. He’s already had a brilliant baseball career in many ways. If he retired today, he’d certainly be a first-ballot selection to the Hall of Fame.
He’s got a career .303 batting average and 350 home runs if you’re into standard statistics. He’s a three-time American League MVP, a Rookie of the Year and a 10-time All-Star if you’re into awards. He’s already amassed 82.4 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) according to baseball-reference.com if analytics are your thing, which is a comparable number to legends like Nolan Ryan, Pete Rose, Pedro Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Brooks Robinson.
But – somehow – he has just one career postseason hit. It was a solo homer during the 2014 AL Division Series against the Kansas City Royals. The Angels were swept, 3-0, and haven’t been back to the postseason since.
Now Trout is back playing important games, even if it’s on the international stage instead of in the MLB playoffs.
“I talked to a lot of guys who did it six years ago,” Trout said. “Lot of great experience tips. As soon as that first pitch goes, we’re going.”
DeRosa agreed. He said one of the first pieces of advice he got when he was tabbed as the team’s manager was making sure that the players understood this was a competition, not an exhibition.
“It’s a sprint,” DeRosa said. “It’s seven games in 11 days. If it were 162, talent usually wins out. But that’s not the entire case here. It’s talent, it’s execution, it’s desire to want to be together, it’s a willingness to be selfless. The best team, in the postseason, is not the team that hosts the trophy every year.”