If you were asked which Diamondback would have the biggest impact on the World Baseball Classic, you'd probably have gone for one of the Venezuelans, likely Miguel Montero or Martin Prado. But you'd have been wrong: instead, it's a pitcher who has averaged 13 appearances and just five starts per season in the majors, since making his debut in 2000.
Nelson Figueroa just sent the United States team crashing out of the World Baseball Classic, almost single-handedly, with six shutout innings this evening in Miami. He held them to two hits and a walk, and was briskly efficient, taking only 82 pitches. This wasn't some second-rate line-up of scrubs, either. It included three MVPs, in Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Braun and Joe Mauer, while Eric Hosmer was the only one of the starting nine for Team USA who was not an All-Star - they had a total of 22 appearances in the Midsummer Classic between them. But, on this night in Florida, they seemed powerless against Figueroa, and that's a wonderful thing.
Even discounting the opposition, this was not far off the best-pitched game of Figueroa's entire career. It had a Game Score of 69. He has only ever had one major-league start resulting in a higher figure, a four-hit shutout for the Mets, on the very last day of the 2009 season. The median among his 65 starts has a Game Score of 45, being this outing for the Astros in 2010, when he worked five innings, and allowed three runs on six hits. That's the kind of pitcher Figueroa generally is: the one who has a career ERA of 4.90 as a starter. This evening, however, he was Greg Maddux in red, with a fastball that topped out at a blistering 88 mph.
Figueroa is almost the definition of a journeyman, having played for six teams, but with no more than 32 appearances for any one of them. Originally a Met, he came to Arizona along with Bernard Gilkey, at the trade deadline in 1998, His major-league debut came with a spot start on a June night in Texas, I think (looking at our pitching logs) because Todd Stottlemyre was unable to pitch. He pitched into the seventh, but allowed four runs and took the loss. Two more spot-starts followed the next month, and that was the end of his time - at least, initially - with the Diamondbacks, for he was part of the package traded to the Phillies for Curt Schilling on July 26, 2000.
Over the 12 1/2 years from then until this evening in Florida, Figueroa:
- signed as a free agent nine times, for seven different franchises (three times with the Mets)
- was released on five occasions and granted free agency on five others
- was selected off waivers three times
- spent the 2007 season, pitching for the Dorados de Chihuahua in the Mexican League.
- came back a free-agent to Arizona in January this year.
He didn't pitch in the majors at all last season, and his experience the year before that was not exactly world-class. In 29 innings with Houston, he allowed 28 earned runs, for an 8.69 ERA, and was hit around at a .352 clip by opposing batters. Compare and contrast the .105 batting average - 2-for-19 with a walk - posted tonight, by the very best the nation has to offer (or, at least, the very best after injuries, apathy and team selfishness have all taken their bloody toll). The odds are, he probably won't pitch for the D-backs this year in the majors either: he's at least eighth, if not lower, on the rotational depth chart, and even that excludes the rehabbing Daniel Hudson.
But for one day, he's probably the best pitcher on the planet, and I love that fact. Part of the joy of sports is seeing the underdog triumph, and the romance in seeing an unheralded hero take his or her place - for a day, at least, in the pantheon normally reserved for higher sporting figures. Buster Douglas, Miracle Mets, the 1980 ice-hockey team, or personally, Wrexham beating Arsenal in the 1992 FA Cup. It's games, upsets and competitors like those which stick in the memory, not when the expected results and winners roll in. So, much as the United States team losing is a disappointment, let's toast the extremely unsung Diamondback who made it possible.
And I suspect Figueroa will never have to buy his own drink in Puerto Rico ever again...