Monday March 16th, 2009

MIAMI -- 1. The WBC has claimed another casualty. Team USA and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun will not play in the Americans' elimination game Tuesday night, according to Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. Braun felt a strained muscle in his right side while batting against the Netherlands on Sunday. Though Braun said Monday he would have the injury re-evaluated Tuesday and hoped to play in the game, Melvin told he is keeping his left fielder out of the game for precautionary reasons.

"He's not playing [Tuesday]," Melvin said. "We'll evaluate it after [Tuesday's] game and go from there. Either way, win or lose, he'll be heading back this way so we can take a look at him."

The Brewers train in Arizona. If the U.S. wins Tuesday, it will advance to the semifinals Saturday in Los Angeles. A loss would eliminate the Americans from the tournament.

The loss of Braun leaves Team USA manager Davey Johnson with only two position players on his bench, and one is the backup catcher (either Brian McCann or Chris Ianettta, whoever does not start). The other reserve player is likely to be either Shane Victorino or David Wright. Johnson said he intends to play Mark DeRosa for nine innings at "third base and/or left field." He is also playing Derek Jeter at shortstop, which means he could have Jeter and DeRosa on the left side of his infield behind a left-handed starter, Ted Lilly, when he could have Jimmy Rollins (the likely DH) and Wright at those key positions.

If DeRosa plays third, Victorino is likely to play left field in Braun's place. Victorino, the Phillies center fielder, has played in 63 big league games in left field. (Johnson could also swap Adam Dunn, Team USA's regular right fielder, to left field and put Victorino in the more spacious right field at Dolphins Stadium.) Curtis Granderson is set in center field by his own choice. He told Johnson before the WBC that he was not comfortable playing a corner outfield position.

2. Dustin Pedroia and Chipper Jones already have left the USA team with ribcage injuries. Pedroia, who returned to the Red Sox camp Saturday, is expected to take batting practice by Thursday and play in a spring training game by Saturday. Jones re-aggravated an injury he originally sustained in WBC Round 1, calling it "a lot worse."

"One of the things we have to find out is why these injuries seem to be happening more with the USA team and not the other teams," Melvin said. "It would be interesting to know."

Said another general manager, "This is a nightmare for any GM."

Braun speculated that Asian clubs benefited from a longer pre-WBC training camp and that Latin America players benefited from winter ball. "It's probably a case of too much too fast," Braun said.

3. A few U.S. players have grumbled privately about playing and training conditions for the WBC. They have suffered from too many off days and too little work. Workouts on off days have been extremely brief. Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox and Team USA came up with an idea worth exploring when he was asked what can be done to make the tournament more player-friendly.

"One site," Youkilis said. "It cuts down on all the traveling and off days instead of clubs flying all over the place. You play it in one site and it will almost be like the Super Bowl. You win you get a day off, you lose you play the next day. Two losses and you're eliminated. You can play it in Los Angeles, Mexico City, Toronto, wherever, but play it at one site. You could probably play the whole tournament in 10 days instead of three weeks."

Braun said he liked the idea, and suggested Los Angeles and Anaheim could host the tournament if a second stadium improved logistics. In any case, the WBC needs to listen to the players if this tournament is going to make it big, not the sponsors and marketers. If you make the tournament as player-friendly as possible, you'll get the best players and best competition, and everything else flows from that. Let the players drive the tournament, not the suits.

"If you take care of the baseball side first, everything else will take care of itself," Melvin said.

4. Check this out: the United States played a WBC home game Sunday night in Florida, with stars such as Jimmy Rollins, Derek Jeter and David Wright in the lineup, and drew 11,059 fans.

Just hours earlier, the New York Yankees played a routine spring training exhibition game in Florida and drew 10,727 fans.

And so Team USA, playing a meaningful elimination game, outdrew a spring training game by a whopping total of 332 people. The U.S. players were disappointed in the crowd, just as they were on Saturday when a clear majority of fans rooted against them for Puerto Rico. So much for home-field advantage.

5. On the other hand, Dolphin Stadium percolated with emotion, flag-waving, dancing and cheering for the Venezuela-Puerto Rico duel Monday, in which the Venezuelans prevailed 2-0, despite walking six batters. The game drew 25,599 fans, not a huge number, except when you realize none of them were casual fans. "It felt like a World Series," Puerto Rico catcher Ivan Rodriguez said.

"It's pretty awesome," Puerto Rico first baseman Carlos Delgado said. "You've got 25,000 Latins going crazy. It was pretty cool ... It beats the hell out of Port St. Lucie."

Felix Hernandez looked every bit the ace for Venezuela, displaying redline emotion on top of wicked stuff. Frankie Rodriguez again looked tremendous, flashing a devastating third pitch, an 82-mph changeup off his 95-mph fastball. The game was played at a very high level, especially for mid-March.

It was a night that actually made you sympathetic to the United States team. The Americans can't get anything close to this kind of passion in their own country. Tuesday night they again will play Puerto Rico with all the elements defining them as the "road" team. It will be Jonathan Sanchez pitching for Puerto Rico against Lilly in the ultimate elimination game: winner goes to the semifinals, loser goes home. And yet Sanchez will be comforted knowing the crowd will be behind him.

And the pressure falls squarely on the United States. Johnson began this tournament declaring his club the team to beat. And while the WBC doesn't necessarily need the USA in the semifinals to sell the event -- not when the goal is to grow the game internationally -- another second-round knockout means another tournament without gaining traction to most fickle baseball audience for this event, the American audience, which includes the American players. Chipper Jones already had blasted the WBC format, saying he would not do it again under the same circumstances. You don't want players going back to their major league teams telling teammates it was a negative experience. That's why the United States needs to win this game: not to sell the WBC to the world, but to sell it to America.

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