Friday March 6th, 2009

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Derek Jeter turning double plays with Dustin Pedroia. Chipper Jones and Adam Dunn taking extra batting practice. Roy Oswalt taking the No. 2 slot in the rotation behind Jake Peavy. Joel Hanrahan, John Grabow, Heath Bell and LaTroy Hawkins helping form the best bullpen in the world. Er, hold that last thought, given the bullpen getting Daschled in recent days. But the sights and sounds as the USA team gathered Monday confirmed the three-year wait is over: the most exciting baseball this side of October is here. The World Baseball Classic is back, and to borrow a phrase from the All-Star Game, this time it counts, America.

"I think we're the team to beat," said U.S. manager Davey Johnson.

The brash and bold Johnson is the best thing to happen to the WBC since, well, since the unprepared Americans were unceremoniously bounced from the inaugural tournament in 2006 by Mexico. "It was kind of like glitz and glamour but not a lot of preparation," Johnson said of the U.S. approach then.

Johnson, who has burnished his fine major league managerial career with international success, is here to win, and has made certain his players bring the same intensity. The U.S. players will benefit this time around from playing about six exhibition games (three as a team, about three with their major league clubs previously) before their opening game against Canada on Saturday in Toronto. (Though that still leaves them underprepared when compared to Asian clubs and Cuba.) The U.S. blueprint was to take advantage of pitch-count limits that force starting pitchers out of games by building a lethal bullpen, but withdrawals from Joe Nathan, B.J. Ryan and Brian Fuentes (for at least the first round) have changed Johnson's hand, though his pen should remain one of the best in the tournament.

Then again, maybe we should have just sent the Yankees. Consider this: Team USA assembled the finest 29 players it could possibly get, and the combined salaries for this all-star team add up to $163 million -- still almost $40 million short of the talent the Yankees assembled.

In only its second go-around, the WBC is already a hit. It has succeeded in its twin goals: raise interest in baseball globally and raise revenue. The third version, scheduled for 2013, is expected to expand on the 16-team field in this one. Aesthetically, it also is a success. The games are played with passion and national zeal with many of the best players in the world. What's not to like?

Curiously, the soil where the WBC needs the biggest jolt of enthusiasm is right here in America, where baseball interest runs regionally, not nationally. Many U.S. fans and media outlets would rather worry about the backup catcher battle for their local team than get jazzed about Team USA. At the U.S.'s first workout Monday, more Japanese media were on hand than American media. The game between Italy and Venezuela on Saturday on a neutral field in Toronto likely will outdraw a 2006 WBC game the U.S. played at home against Canada.

Well, guess what? The WBC is not just about us, America. Baseball is a global game. You're missing a great show. But if you still need convincing that watching Felix Hernandez work through a lineup with David Wright, Ryan Braun, Jeter and Jones is far more compelling than Charlie Zink pitching to Brian Bixler, here are 10 reasons why the WBC matters.

1) The National Pastime. Well, that's what baseball is in Japan, anyway. Team Sumarai Japan, as the defending champions are known in their homeland, drew crowds of more than 30,000 people for workouts in Japan. (The United States drew half of that for WBC first-round games in 2006). Streets around the ballpark were so choked with fans that team buses had a difficult time getting through. People camped out overnight to score the free tickets to the workouts and all of the tickets were gone before daylight. (Meanwhile, in Clearwater, Fla., on Monday, the U.S. team drew a few hundred fans for its workout.)

In 2006, two of the six highest-rated TV shows in Japan were WBC games: a semifinal game against Korea that drew a 36.2 share, including a 50.3 peak, and the final against Cuba that drew a 43.4 share. It's been 23 years since the World Series has attracted that kind of rating in the United States, going back to the 1986 Fall Classic between the Mets and Red Sox.

"My heart is beating with anticipation," Ichiro Suzuki told reporters, capturing the national fervor.

2) The Japan-Korea rivalry. Think Yankees-Red Sox -- doubled. Korea beat Japan twice in the 2006 WBC and twice in the 2008 Olympics. Japan beat Korea in the 2006 WBC semifinal amid an atmosphere that was both festive and intense at Petco Park. Korea will have spent two weeks training in Hawaii and another week playing six exhibition games in Japan before the WBC begins. Seung-Yeop Lee, the "Lion King" who smacked a WBC-best five homers in 2006, is not playing after a down season for the Yomiuri Giants in 2008. Cleveland outfielder Shin-soo Choo is expected to replace his power, but Choo may be limited by a recent elbow injury.

3) Yulieski Gourriel, Cuba. Think Jeter at age 24 with more power. Gourriel, then 21, was one of the most exciting players from the inaugural WBC, drawing rave reviews from major league players who saw him for the first time. The infielder would be a top 10 pick if placed in the First-Year Player Draft.

4) Pitching decisions. The double-elimination format makes every game meaningful, and rids us of the silliness of the runs-allowed tiebreaker that helped the U.S. advance last time instead of Canada, even though Canada beat the U.S. Canada manager Ernie Whitt has a curious call to make on how he uses his pitching. Without Jeff Francis, Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster and Phillippe Aumont, Whitt is left with Scott Richmond of the Blue Jays (five major-league starts) as his ace. Should Whitt use Richmond against the United States in the opener, or, assuming Canada gets by Italy in its second game, save him for a possible elimination game in his third game against the U.S. or Venezuela?

5) Pedro Luis Lazo, Cuba. The big right-handed pitcher, known to conduct interviews with a cigar in his mouth, is 35 years old now, nearing the twilight of a prolific international career. He is Cuba's reliable troubleshooter, who can start, close and be available for anything in between. Lazo shut down the Dominican Republic in 2006 with 4 2/3 innings of shutout relief. Much of the core of the Cuban team is aging: Lazo, shortstop Eduardo Paret, 36, and energetic catcher Ariel Pestano, 35, who can't hit much but is the most expressive, talkative player you'll see in the tournament.

Part of the fun watching the Cuban team play baseball is the unorthodox manner in which they are managed. They have been known to warm up two pitchers before a game, leaving the opposing manager to guess who will be starting as he makes out a lineup card.

"One time we got the first three batters of the game on base against their starter," Johnson said, "and they pulled the pitcher. The guy hadn't even given up a run. They believe how you start off is what you're going to do. They don't give their pitchers any rope."

6) Yu Darvish, Japan. The 22-year-old right-hander, who has a 48-19 career record, is gaining a reputation stateside as the next Daisuke Matsuzaka: possibly the next big thing to come out of Japan to the major leagues through the posting process. The Japanese team has the potential for dominant starting pitching, with Darvish, Matsuzaka, Masahiro Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma, who went 21-4 with a 1.87 ERA in Japan last year. The United States, however, hit Darvish well in the Olympics.

"I think we beat Darvish in the Olympics, didn't we?" Johnson said with a smile, knowing the answer full well. "His style is more like the American style. He's a power pitcher."

7) Auditions. Pedro Martinez, Pudge Rodriguez, Moises Alou, Odalis Perez and perhaps even Bernie Williams are hoping to use the WBC to convince major-league teams they still have something to offer.

8) A-Rod vs. Jeter. The U.S. could see the Dominican Republic in Miami in Round 2. Think the New York tabloids would be interested in this matchup?

9) Jeter or Jimmy Rollins? On second thought, Johnson has a very tough call to make regarding his shortstops. He has decided that whoever starts will play the whole game; no splitting games. Per their preferences, Jeter started the exhibition game against his Yankees on Tuesday and Rollins started against his Phillies on Thursday. After that? It depends who is playing well. Johnson, remember, is the tough-minded hombre who as Orioles manager moved Cal Ripken from shortstop to third base to play Manny Alexander at short. Johnson will do whatever it takes to win. Every indication from his players has been that they, too, will do likewise. Mets star David Wright, for instance, told Johnson he'd hit ninth with no problem if that's what the manager wanted.

10) Hanley Ramirez or Jose Reyes? Dominican Republic manager Felipe Alou has a similar quandary with his shortstops. To play both in the same lineup would mean playing DH David Ortiz at first base or playing one of them out of position. There is a reason why the Dominicans, even without Albert Pujols, are considered by some to be favorites to win the WBC: they are stacked with offense. Also, they might wind up with as deep a bullpen as the Americans, being able to call on Jose Arredondo, Damaso Marte, Juan Cruz and Rafael Perez.

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