Wednesday March 4th, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. -- On Monday afternoon, Heath Bell was in Peoria, Ariz., just another relief pitcher getting ready for another monotonous spring training game -- Padres vs. Brewers! Catch the excitement! -- when his phone rang. America needed him to save the day. Would he answer the call?

After an all-night flight that got him to Tampa around 10 o'clock Tuesday morning and with no time to head to the team hotel in nearby Clearwater, Bell made it to Legends Field in time for Team USA's World Baseball Classic exhibition opener against the Yankees. By the seventh inning, he was on the mound and on his game, demonstrating that he, and not someone from the roster of All-Stars (see Oswalt, Roy and Peavy, Jake), MVPs (see Pedroia, Dustin and Rollins, Jimmy) and future Hall of Famers (Jones, Chipper and Jeter, Derek) may hold the key to the Americans' chances of success at the WBC. With each of the top contenders boasting an offense stacked with premier talent and starting pitchers limited by pitch counts (at least for the early rounds), it will be the bullpens that often decide the outcomes of games in this tournament. After the defections of closers B.J. Ryan and Joe Nathan, and the possible loss of Brian Fuentes, the U.S. was left with an underwhelming mix of mostly anonymous options -- Joel Hanrahan? John Grabow? Matt Lindstrom? -- to secure crucial late-inning outs.

Enter Bell, who was originally told he would not pitch on Tuesday but nevertheless entered the game in the bottom of the seventh with the U.S. leading 6-4. He promptly struck out the side, making him the only American pitcher to not allow a baserunner and fueling hope that he can be relied upon when the games start to matter. Granted, his victims -- Melky Cabrera, Doug Bernier and John Rodriguez -- are not exactly Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio (or even, for that matter, Justin Morneau, Joey Votto and Jason Bay, three sluggers for Team Canada, the U.S.'s opponent in Saturday's first game for competition), but for a rotation suddenly facing a series of questions in the bullpen, Bell may be the answer. He has only two career saves, but that hardly is a deterrent on a roster that is down to just one established closer (J.J. Putz of the Mets, who will actually be a set-up man in New York this season).

Bell, too, can help solve another of Team USA's most pressing needs. His engaging and light-hearted personality is exactly what U.S. manager Davey Johnson has been looking for after the buttoned-down clubhouse dynamic that returning players like Chipper Jones have pointed to as part of the reason for the U.S.'s flameout in the inaugural WBC. "That personality is exactly what this team needs and didn't have in 2006," says one Team USA official. Case in point: Bell arrived at his postgame news conference wearing a catcher's mask, a bit of levity that was noticeably absent three years ago.

There was no particular reason for that, but if Bell was hoping to maintain his anonymity, he may be out of luck. This particular masked man is about to be revealed. He is expected to take over the closer's role from departed all-time saves king Trevor Hoffman in San Diego and his spot in the WBC and his performance may allow him to escape from the anonymity that he attributed, in part, to his initial exclusion from the roster. "I was bummed out they wouldn't call me," says Bell, who signed three different player participation forms for interested players, only to be ignored each time. "I was like you know what, I'm just a set up guy in San Diego and nobody pays any attention to anybody in San Diego. I thought maybe if I go to San Diego and become the closer then a couple of years down the line I can play in the next WBC."

Bell was planning on watching the event, not playing a potentially critical role in it. His locker in Peoria is adorned with both American and Mexican flags as a show of support for his teammates who were already headed to the WBC. When Bell found out he would be joining them, "I was basically like a kid at Christmas. When [Padres general manager Kevin Towers] told me, I was giddy, I was running all around. The first few minutes I had the biggest smile on my face, running around saying I'm going, I'm going!"

Perhaps the most impressive part of Bell's day was that he managed to steal some of Derek Jeter's thunder. Jeter is Bell's polar opposite on the club on everything from All-Star appearances (Jeter has nine, Bell none) to postseason success (Jeter has four World Series rings, Bell has never pitched in a playoff game) to Q rating, and while Bell was the last player added to the roster, Jeter was the first. Appropriately enough, as a veteran of the first WBC, Jeter was also named team captain, giving him the rare distinction on Tuesday of being the captain of both teams on the field.

While Bell offered a ringing endorsement of his ability and value on the mound, Jeter did likewise at the plate. With two hits and a walk, he was the only player on Team USA to register a multi-hit game and the only one to reach base three times. He also delivered the go-ahead two-run single in the third inning that gave the U.S. a lead it would not relinquish.

While Bell was ecstatic at his inclusion, the more reserved Jeter was, in his usual way, the picture of understatement. Aside from almost running to the wrong dugout a couple of times, and being shouted at by Jorge Posada in an effort to break up first-inning double play, it was business as usual for the Yankees' -- ahem, U.S.' -- star shortstop.

Jeter's mere presence was enough to make a couple of players, notably Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies (his understudy on this day) and David Wright of the Mets, proclaim that he was the player they were looking forward to being around the most. "I want to get in his mind a little bit and learn a little bit about how he prepares for a game," says Wright of his fellow Big Apple star. "I'm going to be selfish about it."

Jeter's influence over Wright and Rollins could be even more significant. His locker, for one day at least, was located in between theirs and Wright half-jokingly indicated Jeter had already helped broker a truce between the leaders of the NL East rivals. "We signed a three-week treaty and promised not to talk about who the team to beat is," said Wright.

That's a phrase Rollins made famous with his preseason boast that the Phillies were the team to beat in 2007, which he then backed up with an MVP season to help Philadelphia overtake the Mets in September. It's also the same phrase U.S. manager Johnson used for his club, and when he was asked Tuesday if he still believed that, Johnson said "No doubt about it." Thanks to his first player providing his usual mixture of offense and clubhouse leadership and his last player helping patch a suddenly leaky bullpen, he may very well be right.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.