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An interesting night at the nerve center for the WBC

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When I got here last week I wrote some complimentary things about Phoenix which were somehow spotted by the folks at the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau. Those good folks asked me if I was interested in joining them for dinner, along with a larger media tour they were holding in connection with the World Baseball Classic. You don’t have to ask me out for dinner twice, so I as on board when it went down last night.

The location: The Hotel Palomar, a block or so away from Chase Field. The Palomar is home base for the WBC. Players for the WBC teams are staying there, as are all of the officials, media relations people and what not. And the whole hotel was festooned with WBC logos, like so:

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The Palomar is a nice joint. So nice, in fact, that it made me change my inner monologue about some of the WBC players I’ve seen around the Cactus League the past few days.  Before it went like this:

Look at those guys. They’re good baseball players, but they’re simply outclassed by the Major Leaguers. It must be so weird for them to find themselves on these fields, far from home, being humbled in this way. I feel like going up and hugging them.

Now it’s like this:

Man, a couple of hours of this game and then they get to go to that sweet hotel, sit in the cabana by the pool and chit chat with all of the beautiful women who, by pure coincidence, are walking around the hotel, looking hard at anyone who might be a baseball player.

Put differently: even the backup catcher for Team Italy has got it better than you this week.

Driving around from ballpark to ballpark in the Phoenix suburbs, the WBC feels far away. But downtown, in and around the Palomar, there is definitely a feeling of electricity. I spoke with a couple in the lobby who came to town specifically for the WBC. They were excited. As too were those women who, by pure coincidence, were walking around the hotel. There were signs for meeting rooms and administrative offices for the WBC, all suggesting a much bigger thing, for lack of a better term, than most of us take the WBC to be.

All of it makes me wonder if the WBC would consider making the event a one-site thing in the future, rather than scattering it around the world like it is this week. There are certainly enough fields here in Arizona to make it work. Make it a destination thing, condense the schedule a bit and have one mega-hella tournament and maybe some of that heat I felt downtown last night would grow, making it an even bigger event than it is right now. Super Bowl-esque, dare I say? True, that is normally a sacrilegious thought when it comes to baseball, but I think it’s quite appropriate for the WBC even if it isn’t for the MLB regular season or World Series. Just thinking out loud here.

After bopping around the hotel we went into the on-site restaurant, Blue Hound Kitchen and Cocktails. There I had a couple of Manhattans and some short ribs and talked about baseball for a long damn time with the head of the Phoenix CVB, who happened to be a big Braves fan back in the Rafael Ramirez/Pascual Perez days and a freelance wine and travel writer named Bob Ecker who once raced as the Hot Dog in the Miller Park Sausage Race. Joining us in conversation was another freelancer named Lisa Davis who, while having very little connection to baseball herself, is looking forward to the White Sox-Cubs game on Thursday because she’s convinced there will be fights in the stands.

Scenesters at a hotel pool. Travel writers. Italian baseball players. Civic boosters. For one evening I’m imagining and actually experiencing a world where everyone, in every walk of life, cares, in their own way, about baseball and has some connection to it, however tenuous. It’s a world I would very much love to live in, even if I know it only exists in these odd couple of weeks in the desert, appearing like a mirage and, necessarily, soon to disappear.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.