If this is the Year of Trout, it begins at the World Baseball Classic

March 9th, 2023

The last time  played in an elimination game was Oct. 5, 2014. The Angels, who had won 98 games during that regular season, the most in baseball, were playing the Kansas City Royals in the American League Division Series, and they were in trouble, down 2-0 in a best-of-five series. James Shields (Big Game James!) started for the Royals against C.J. Wilson. In the first inning, Trout hit a home run off Shields, which must have been a relief: He’d been 0-for-8 in the series before that at-bat in the first postseason series of his career.

The home run felt like a statement: We’re not done yet. But it turned out that the Angels were: Wilson didn’t make it out of the first, giving up three runs, and the Angels were essentially done right then, ultimately losing 8-3. Trout would go 0-for-3 the rest of the game.

And he hasn’t reached the playoffs since.

As Team USA, now captained by Trout playing in his first World Baseball Classic, prepares to play its first game against Great Britain on Saturday night, it is worth appreciating how exciting it will be to see Mike Trout play in some big games. When we watched him play in that ALDS, we couldn’t have possibly known that would be the last time he’d play in an elimination game for nine years. At the time, it felt like just the start.

So seeing Mike Trout in the Classic isn’t just great because he’s one of the best players in baseball, an all-timer already, or because he’s one of the faces of the sport. It’s great because we can finally watch him with everything on the line.

We know Trout can step up when all eyes are on him: He has, after all, won two All-Star Game MVP Awards. But, as much as we all love the All-Star Game, as much as we all wanted those games to matter more because of how they determined home-field advantage in the World Series back then, those weren’t playoff games or even the World Baseball Classic.

When you are as great a player as Trout has been, and is, and will be for years to come, your place in history is secure. Trout’s all but a lock to be in the Hall of Fame even if he decides to run away and dedicate the rest of his life to playing tiddlywinks in a yurt. But you can make an argument that this could very well be setting up to be The Year of Trout.

The season begins with the World Baseball Classic, of course, with Trout as the captain. Trout has been open about how envious he was back in 2017, watching those players be a part of winning a championship. It’s clear he’s desperate to get a victory himself.

“When I decided not to do it, watching the games, I kind of regretted that I didn’t do it,” he said in January. “The whole main reason we’re here is to win this thing. All the other stuff is great, being able to play with each other, get to know each other a little bit more, but the only thing on our mind is trying to win this whole thing. There’s a lot of great countries out there with a lot of great teams, but that’s the whole reason I signed up, is to win this thing and there’s nothing else, you know. Anything else is a failure.”

You know what that sounds like? That sounds like a guy who hasn’t played an elimination game in nearly a decade.

But that’s just the start for Trout in 2023. We have all been waiting, impatiently, for the year Trout stays healthy and is himself from start to finish and simply wrecks the rest of baseball. He hasn’t played more than 119 games since 2019, and he has only played more than 140 four times, and not since 2016. He’s only 31 years old: Still very much in his prime. He seems 100 percent healthy heading into the WBC, with those fears about the rare back injury that scared everybody last year seemingly in the rearview mirror, a “nonissue” in his words. (And he was fantastic -- which is to say, “normal Trout” -- down the stretch last year.) Could this be his first MVP season since 2019?

His team looks better than it has in a while too, with a pitching staff that was better than people realized last year, one that could be even better this year. He’ll also anchor the deepest lineup he’s had since 2015. And of course he has -- perhaps for the last season -- Shohei Ohtani, his fellow MVP, and the person we’re going to be talking about all offseason once he hits free agency, right alongside him. The Angels have a lot of issues moving forward, and there are reasons to wonder what this franchise is going to look like over the course of the rest of Trout’s contract. But this year? This year looks like Trout’s best chance to make the playoffs in several years.

So: We’ve got Trout captaining Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. We’ve got Trout as healthy as he’s been in years. We’ve got Trout with an Angels roster that sure looks like a potential playoff team. And we’ve got Trout with his running mate Shohei for what could be the last time. See what I mean? Year of Trout. I can’t wait to see him in the biggest moments possible. It has been far, far too long.