FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -It hit Brian Roberts on Sunday, before he even had his first at-bat or experienced one of the highlights of his baseball career.
"I take the national anthem seriously every day, but I was standing there, praying like I always do during the anthem, and then I opened my eyes and looked around and saw who was standing beside me and what uniform I had on," Roberts said of his indoctrination to Team USA and the World Baseball Classic. "I said to myself, 'Wow, this is for real.' "
The Orioles second baseman went 3-for-3, reached base in all five of his plate appearances and finished a home run shy of the cycle that night in Team USA's 9-3 victory over the Netherlands. But that was nothing compared with the excitement of Tuesday, when the two-time All-Star played a crucial role in Team USA's 6-5 comeback victory over Puerto Rico that secured the Americans a spot in the semifinals of the WBC this weekend in Los Angeles.
In a pulsating bottom of the ninth inning that started with Team USA trailing by two runs and facing elimination, Roberts singled off J.C. Romero, stole second base and then raced home with the tying run ahead of Jimmy Rollins, who scored the winning run on David Wright's single off former Oriole Fernando Cabrera. Team USA poured out of the dugout and mobbed one another around second base at Dolphin Stadium in Miami, star players for their respective major league teams celebrating what several called one of the biggest victories of their careers.
"I've never experienced anything like that," said Roberts, who stopped by Fort Lauderdale Stadium yesterday before heading to Dolphin Stadium to join Team USA in its game last night against Venezuela, which mattered for seeding purposes only. "We all got in the clubhouse and said, 'Dude, it's only March 18, what are we doing?' But that's the emotion when you put USA on your chests. You can't help but feel that way. We haven't even won it all yet. We know we have work to do, but the circumstances and situation just warranted that kind of energy.
"It's been one of the best experiences of my life. Last night was, if not the highlight of my baseball career, it was pretty darn close, and I was not the only one that said that in the locker room last night. ... I think all the guys who have never won a World Series or played in a playoff game, that was as good as it gets for us, so far."
For Roberts, it nearly never happened. The Oriole, who signed a four-year, $40 million extension this offseason, had no idea he was on the provisional roster for the WBC. He also was unaware that Team USA officials were trying frantically to reach him late last week after Boston Red Sox star second baseman Dustin Pedroia was forced out of the tournament because of injury. Roberts left his cell phone in his locker at Fort Lauderdale Stadium after Saturday's game and didn't get the news until the Orioles contacted his agent, Mark Pieper, who then reached his client through Roberts' wife.
Roberts' unfamiliarity with the team showed Tuesday when he was on first and Shane Victorino was on third in the ninth. With one out, Rollins at the plate and Team USA still trailing by two runs, third base coach Mike Schmidt gave Roberts the hold sign, meaning he was not to steal to try to get into scoring position. However, Roberts, who joined the team only three days earlier, still didn't have a grasp of the signs and took off anyway, barely making it ahead of Yadier Molina's throw.
"I was kind of in a daze," Roberts said. "I was looking at the signs and I knew he didn't put anything on, but I didn't really think about the hold sign. [Schmidt] wasn't mad. He just said: 'Man, I can't believe you just did that. That was unbelievable.' I said, 'Well, sorry.' I thought about it for a couple of pitches, and I decided we had a whole lot better chance of tying the game if I was on second than if I was on first."
Roberts was hitting just .217 with one RBI in eight Grapefruit League games for the Orioles. In two games for Team USA, he's 4-for-7 with an RBI, a stolen base and a sacrifice bunt.
"[Derek] Jeter said to me the other day, 'I played in this in 2006 and I had one of my best years,' " Roberts said. "He said that it really jump-started him. ... I think that's certainly a possibility [for me]. At times in spring training, you're not going through the motions, but you don't have the focus and the intensity that you have with [regular-season games]. As soon as the lights went on the other night, it was just a whole different ballgame.
"I've said it over and over again when the contract stuff came up: You want to play in meaningful games. That's what this game is all about. When you go a long time without really playing in a playoff game or something meaningful in September, you wonder, 'Can I do it when it counts?' That was big, as much as anything for me, to realize that you can go in there and produce when it counts."