Penn Murfee once considered abandoning baseball entirely and going to work in Silicon Valley, putting his graduate degree in business analytics to use.
He had planned to spend the first half of this off-season on a ranch in Wyoming, driving fence posts and helping birth calves, and the second half of the off-season living out of an RV on a beach in SoCal.
Instead, today Penn Murfee stood on a mound in the Tokyo Dome in front of 28,000 fans, the majority of whom were there to support Team Japan and armed with banners and songs, as the starting pitcher for Team USA in international play.
The Premier 12 tournament features the top 12 teams from the world, and serves as a qualifier for the 2020 Olympic Games, when baseball will make a return to the games for the first time in over a decade. Only six teams will earn the right to play in the Olympics, and two of those spots are already spoken for, with Japan as the host nation earning one spot, and Israel, winners of the Africa/European Olympic Qualification round, earning the other. Two more spots will be allocated after the Premier 12 tournament, one to the top finisher from the Americas, and one to the top finisher from Asia/Oceania.
Theoretically, making a deep run in the tournament should be easy for the US, winners of the most recent WBC (World Baseball Classic, the worldwide FIFA-style tournament organized in response to the Olympic Committee voting baseball out of the Games) in 2017. However, MLB stipulates that unlike the All-Star roster Team USA sent to the WBC, no player for the Premier 12 tournament is allowed to be on an MLB 40-man roster. Unlike the prep or college Team USAs, highly competitive teams that feature top amateur talent, the professional Team USA is more of a grab bag. There is some prospect power on the roster: Angels power hitter Jo Adell is likely the highest-touted prospect on the team, with the Phillies’ ascendant star Alec Bohm close on his heels; the third overall pick from 2019, Cal’s Andrew Vaughn (CWS), holds down first base. There’s also a 39-year-old Erik Kratz at catcher. The pitching staff, however, is a different story, with none of the MLB clubs willing to send a top pitching prospect to log additional innings, leading to a staff largely composed of relievers, 36-year-old Clayton Richard, and Seattle’s own bolt from the blue, Penn Murfee.
Murfee, who pitched in High-A Modesto this year, wasn’t an initial selection for Team USA, which worked out in Arizona and drew heavily from the Arizona Fall League, but was tapped as an injury replacement after his strong showing in the AFL (30 Ks in 22 IP with a 1.23 ERA). And also, because he was there. Prior to today, he made one appearance for Team USA, a shaky relief appearance against the Dominican Republic (fellow Mariner prospect Wyatt Mills bailed him out, earning the win with two dominant innings of relief). But when starter Tanner Houck wasn’t available to go, Murfee stepped up to make the start in a game the USA desperately needed to stay afloat in the Premier 12 tournament, with Olympic dreams on the line.
Back in his starter role, Murfee worked three scoreless, hitless innings against undefeated Japan. He retired the first batter he faced on one pitch, an easy groundout right to the first baseman, struck out the next batter swinging on a nasty slider, and then ran into a bit of trouble with his command (and a catcher unfamiliar with Murfee’s movement-heavy arsenal), walking the next two batters before getting another groundout to end the inning. He collected two more groundouts and a strikeout in the second, and then walked the first batter he saw in the third before the former infielder helped himself out with a double play.
One more infield groundout ended the inning, and Murfee’s start. He likely could have gone deeper in the game—his pitch count was only at 40 through the three innings, and Murfee, who keeps a notebook with him in the dugout and takes notes throughout his starts, tends to get better as he goes along. But at the end of his day, Murfee did his job: he kept a talented Japan lineup off the board, protected a two-run lead for the US, and didn’t let a ball leave the infield against him. Far from the quiet nights of the California League, punctuated only by the occasional cowbell; far from the near-empty stadiums of the AFL; and very far indeed from the wide open spaces of a Wyoming ranch or the roar of the Pacific, Murfee pitched in front of almost 30,000 people and held his own against world-class competition. It’s an unconventional path, but then again, Murfee is an unconventional fellow.