Team USA starts WBC on wrong foot with loss to Mexico
PHOENIX -- It was a pure Jimmy Rollins moment, reminiscent of his 2007 preseason proclamation that his Phillies were "the team to beat." The stench from a 5-2 defeat by the USA to Mexico in their World Baseball Classic opener Friday still hung in the air when Rollins led with his chin once again.
"If we win the next two, we will advance," he said.
It's not factually certain, of course. The loss was so damaging that the USA could win the next two games, against Italy on Saturday and Canada on Sunday, and still get eliminated based on the Byzantine tiebreaker formula. Rollins knew this, of course. He just refused to acknowledge it had any chance of happening.
"We need to win, but not only win," Rollins said. "We need to put up some runs. We've got to kick some butts."
Get this: if Mexico beats Canada on Saturday afternoon, the USA will face elimination against Italy. Already. And in any case, the USA may be under the gun not just to win a game but also to pile on runs quickly.
Didn't the tournament just start for the USA? How did it come to this already? The USA started a Cy Young Award winner (R.A. Dickey) and nine hitters who have combined for 24 All-Star Games and $73.5 million in salary. The entire roster pulls in $141 million this year. For as much talk as there has been about the players not here, this is an immensely talented and accomplished roster. They were up against a Mexico team with Gil Velazquez at shortstop -- a 33-year-old with 32 Major League games in his portfolio, as compared to 1,380 Minor League games. The bullpen featured Oscar Villarreal, who has pitched for nine organizations in the past 15 years.
There was a moment during the game, with the USA already trailing 4-0, when commissioner Bud Selig, speaking to reporters in the press box, boasted about this whole "growing the game" plan internationally. "If we do it right, you will not recognize the sport in a decade," he said.
He may have been alluding to his dream of a true World Series one day, such as the MLB World Series champion taking on the champion from Nippon Pro Baseball. Or MLB opening its season with games in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. Or the Holy Grail of the international game, a baseball-crazy China, with its 1.3 billion consumers signing up for online fantasy leagues.
Or perhaps he was talking about the United States actually getting decent starting pitching in the WBC.
Wonder why the WBC has had trouble gaining traction in America? Many reasons abound, but you can start with the reality that the home team just hasn't been very good. It is now 7-8 in WBC history. Normally, a win by Mexico over a star-studded USA team would qualify as one of those great David-beats-Goliath stories. But the USA isn't Goliath in this tournament -- never has been. And it's been all about the lousy starting pitching.
In the 15 WBC games, USA starters are 3-7 with a 6.19 ERA and 1.48 WHIP.
Clayton Kershaw, please pick up the white courtesy phone.
Mexico pounded Dickey for four runs on six hits in four innings. They jumped on him from the start, beginning the game single-double-sac fly-RBI groundout for two runs. Then Adrian Gonzalez walloped a do-nothing knuckler from Dickey so far it nearly landed in somebody's nachos in centerfield.
If you don't think players care about the WBC, you didn't see what Gonzalez did when the ball went out: he pumped his fists and shouted, displaying more emotion on his trip around the bases than might register out of the cool first baseman over an entire season.
He never has hit a postseason home run, so this home run, he said, "Has to rank right up there with any that I've hit. There's something about this place [Chase Field] for me. I won the home run derby here, hit a home run in the All-Star Game here and we clinched here in '06 when we went to the playoffs. There are good feelings here for me."
The game was a fun spectacle, what with about half of the boisterous crowd of 44,256 rooting for Mexico. There were mariachi bands, costumed folkloric dancers, noisemakers of every variety and unscheduled parade -- that would be the long line of baserunners the USA left on base.
"I put us behind the eight ball," Dickey said. "I think I took some of the energy out of the club."
Many top starting pitchers want no part of the WBC. They don't want to start throwing earlier. They fear injury. They don't want to get out of their comfort zone. Give Dickey credit for signing on, even though he is spending spring with a new organization, Toronto. Dickey had tried best he could to prepare himself for this start. After he would pitch in a Spring Training game for the Blue Jays, he would go to the bullpen to throw a couple of simulated innings, just to ramp up his arm strength and game readiness.
"None of us were really sharp," he said, alluding to relievers such as Glen Perkins and Mitchell Boggs as well.
"A lot of the other guys," he said, referring to pitchers from other countries, "play winter ball and go to Spring Training more ready."
For whatever reason, guys like Dickey, Jeremy Guthrie, Roy Oswalt, Jake Peavy and Dontrelle Willis have flat-out bombed on the WBC stage for the USA. The USA keeps building these deep bullpens of strikeout pitchers and can't get to them with a lead because of poor starting pitching.
Selig has been right about the WBC. It has succeeded in raising the profile of baseball around the globe. The tournament keeps drawing more people (about 12,000 more showed up Friday than for a USA-Mexico game here in 2006), showing up on more TV sets in more countries, signing up more sponsors and making more money to distribute to federations around the world. All that is great.
But Selig needs some help to bring more eyeballs to the event here. He needs some help from Team USA. He needs some American starting pitchers to get some people out.
Tonight, Ryan Vogelsong gets the ball for the USA against Italy. Here we are already: the USA is reeling, and faces pressure not just to beat the Italians but also to blow them out. The possibility even exists that the USA could be knocked out of the tournament after two nights. Not even Selig could put a happy spin on that development. For him, Jimmy Rollins had better be right.