1. The showdown between USA reliever J.J. Putz and Canada outfielder Jason Bay in the ninth inning Saturday -- eight pitches, one-run game on the line, two outs, bottom of the ninth, tying run at second base, 42,314 people standing and yelling -- is exactly the kind of showdown that worries big league managers and pitching coaches. Putz won the battle by getting Bay on a flyball to rightfield to close a 6-5 first-round win by the USA. It was great theater, and, of course, it was one of a thousand examples that disprove the ridiculous notion that these guys don't care about winning these games (including Adam Dunn taking out Pete Orr at second base). But for pitchers to compete at maximum level, physically and mentally, in the first week of March is what worries clubs.
Putz said he ramped up his workouts a couple of weeks earlier this winter to prepare for this competition. In fact, he said he's throwing with the kind of intensity and polish he normally would not have until about two weeks later. He touched 95 mph against Canada and was clocked at 94 on his last three pitches to Bay.
"It definitely takes a toll on you," Putz said. "I reached back, but the velocity wasn't really there. That's when you focus on locating your pitches."
The accelerated program for pitchers carries the highest potential toll for playing this tournament. Pitchers will have to step down their intensity after the tournament, then build it back up for Opening Day. But that potential cost is worth all the benefits the WBC generates. You can't run this kind of tournament with no ancillary risks whatsoever, just as you can't run spring training without risks. This is about baseball and it is about country, not the institution of Major League Baseball. And if you didn't get the significance of that, you weren't standing next to Putz, an ice pack dripping water from his right shoulder, a smile plastered to his face, when somebody asked him where this moment ranked in his career.
"This," he said, "is at the top."
2. The first WBC gave us breakout stars (in America, anyway) such as Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yulieksy Gourriel. Say hello to your first spectacular new arrival of the second WBC: 6-foot-7 righthanded pitcher Phillipe Aumount of Canada. Aumount, who just turned 20 in January, loaded the bases with no outs in the seventh before he proceeded to shut down David Wright (soft liner) and Kevin Youkilis and Curtis Granderson (struck out swinging). The six Americans to bat against him (the first three were MVPs Dustin Pedroia, Jimmy Rollins and Chipper Jones) missed on eight of their 13 swings. This was a young Kerry Wood 2.0: Mid-90s fastball that he could cut and run with ridiculous movement and a crossfire low-80s breaking ball (a curveball/slider combo) that recalled Wood's wipeout pitch. His changeup was unnecessary.
"My curveball today was amazing," said Aumont in English, his second language.
Said Rollins, "That guy was nasty. Coming crossfire with that breaking ball and bringing it 96? Come on. Chipper [Jones] saw one look at that and he goes, 'Whoa. Better dial it up."'
"Wow," Pedroia said. "He got my attention from the first pitch."
The Mariners took Aumont with the 11th pick of the 2007 draft. He threw 55 2/3 innings at Wisconsin last season, making eight starts and seven relief appearances. He has closer's stuff but also a starting pitcher's repertoire.
"In the bottom of my heart I'm a starter," he said. "I like to get the ball early in the game and at the end of the game get a win, and your confidence goes up to the highest quality."
3. Spring training games are meaningless, depriving us of the pastime of second-guessing managers. Thank goodness for the WBC, which allows us to sharpen our second-guessing skills in March.
Dominican Republic manager Felipe Alou, for instance, took David Ortiz out of the game against The Netherlands in the seventh inning for a pinch-runner, Jose Bautista. The Dominicans trailed by one run. The rub was that Ortiz was not the lead runner (there was a runner at second base), he was not in scoring position, he was not the tying run and there were two outs already. The move came back to haunt Alou when Ortiz's spot in the lineup wound up being the last plate appearance of the game. Alas, Bautista whiffed.
The United States, meanwhile, lived to tell about an aggressive defensive alignment in the ninth inning. The Americans held a two-run lead with one out and a man on second base when they chose not to play a "no-doubles" defense, which is a deeper outfield alignment designed to keep the tying run off second base. Joey Votto promptly split the rightfield gap with a broken-bat double -- leaving Canada just one single away from tying the game. Putz made the decision moot by retiring Justin Morneau and Bay.
4. Wish you were here. No, really. The WBC is one of those rare sporting events where the excitement lives past the hype. Listen, I don't care about all the great players who chose not to be here. You'd think Team USA was running a junior varsity team out there for all the media coverage given to Team DNP. Against Canada the U.S. started a Cy Young winner and used five players who either won an MVP or finished in the top three. The atmosphere at the ballpark was playoff-quality. "It felt the same," Pedroia said of comparing the WBC to October.
Said starting pitcher Jake Peavy, "It was as fun as any game I've been a part of."
Said Rollins, "This was more like Game 1" of the World Series.
I can wonder why in the world Canada and the United States played on the undercard while Italy and Venezuela got prime time. I can wonder why an 18,000-seat stadium in San Juan is half-empty to see the Dominican team with some of the biggest stars in baseball. (Well, maybe I shouldn't wonder. It's a sign that tickets were overpriced for games not involving the home team, Puerto Rico; most of them cost between $48 and $104 apiece. The object is to grow the game, so make sure seats are filled through more flexible pricing or heavy discounts to youth organizations.)
But you absolutely cannot wonder about the competition. It is genuine and it is high quality. These players care. The fans care. And if some players would rather be going through the motions in Florida and Arizona, that's their right. But that's not the story.
5. USA manager Davey Johnson said he would use his shortstops, Rollins and Derek Jeter, for nine innings at a time. So everyone, including Rollins, was surprised when Johnson and USA coach Barry Larkin told Rollins in the middle of the game they were splitting the at-bats, three for Jeter and two for Rollins. So after Jeter singled in the fifth, Rollins was thrown into the game as a pinch-runner. Strange.
• Pedro Martinez didn't exactly look fit, but his pitching looked fine against The Netherlands. Okay, he got away with a few poorly placed fastballs against that lineup. But anybody who watched that game had to agree that Martinez still has something to offer a major league club.
• Canada starting pitcher Mike Johnson gives new meaning to the term journeyman righthander. He has pitched for 18 teams in 16 cities for 12 organizations in four countries. His start against the USA was his biggest since "Don Mattingly Day at Yankee Stadium," he said.
• They're dancing in the streets of Rotterdam. (But what else is new on a Saturday night there?) Netherlands' win over the Dominican Republic put Honkbal Hoofdklasse on the map. Uh, that's the Dutch version of the majors, the Netherlands' top professional league that has eight teams and a 42-game, weekend-only schedule
• This just in on Votto: The dude can flat-out rake. Votto quietly put up a huge rookie season for the Reds last season, but he has star written all over him. He whacked two singles, a double and a home run against the USA, some of them against filthy pitches. He exudes a calmness, both in his personality and swing mechanics, that project to very big things in this game.
• The USA bullpen is unlike anything in the tournament because of its depth. Johnson used six relievers against Canada, but none from among Jonathan Broxton, Matt Lindstrom, Brad Ziegler, Heath Bell and LaTroy Hawkins, all of whom are fresh for Sunday's game. And no, Putz will not be available to pitch a second-straight day after exerting himself against Canada, not unless Johnson wants to put Mets GM Omar Minaya through a stress test.