Team USA Advances To Second Round Behind Clemens

PHOENIX–As the wind blew strongly at Scottsdale Stadium on Friday
afternoon, part of the breeze came from the United States’ sigh of
relief.

By throttling South Africa 17-0 in a predictable
massacre called after five innings under the mercy rule, Team USA
officially advanced to the second round of the World Baseball Classic
and survived its mild scare caused by Wednesday night’s loss to Canada.
The win gave the U.S. the same 2-1 record in Pool B as both Mexico and
Canada, but the three-way tiebreaker left Mexico and the United States
the top two finishers based on runs allowed in games among the three
teams.

Several players said the Canada loss would be on the
team’s minds as it enters the second round against Mexico, Korea and
Japan in Anaheim, Calif., beginning Sunday. That round will be played
under the pool format as the first, using tiebreakers that many players
admitted they hadn’t known until the past few days.

“It
might be the best thing that ever happened to us going down the stretch
because we put our destiny in other people’s hands,” Team USA third
baseman Alex Rodriguez said. “I don’t think half the team knew what the
heck was going on around here until some of you guys explained it to
us.”

Added center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., who hit two
three-run homers in the South Africa onslaught to give Team USA starter
Roger Clemens an easy cushion, “Now that the second round is here, I
think the intensity is gonna pick up. The guys are a week into spring
training basically. I think it’s going to be a little more exciting.”

The
United States is scheduled to face Japan at 4 p.m. ET Sunday with
Mexico and Korea playing at 11 p.m. However, the game times could
switch by request from ESPN, which will consider how the field for the
NCAA men’s basketball tournament is being announced at 6 p.m., during
the early game.

Regardless of starting time, manager Buck
Martinez said that he will change how he uses personnel the rest of the
tournament. In the first three games, he removed regulars liberally to
allow more players to get work; starters such as Rodriguez, Griffey and
catcher Jason Varitek will now play considerably deeper into games,
making the contests appear more like taut competition than
spring-training exhibitions.

“I will use the players
according to the game situation,” Martinez said. “We had the obligation
to get these players ready for their respective teams when they go
back, and I think that was a concern early on.”

Martinez
said that many players, following the Canada loss, had told him that
they were ready to play nine innings. Asked if they would have said
that had Canada not upset the U.S. and jeopardized their tournament
life, Martinez said, “Probably not. So that had a purpose.”

As
it did in Round One, Team USA will use Jake Peavy, Dontrelle Willis and
Clemens as its three starters. Japan is expected to use Koji Uehara to
face Peavy, followed by Daisuke Matsuzaka and Shunsuke Watanabe. Mexico
manager Paquin Estrada did not announce a rotation but will probably
start Rodrigo Lopez on Sunday against Korea, which also has not
announced a starter.

Martinez said that his starting
pitchers will be used deeper into games as well, into the fourth or
fifth innings and closer to the tournament pitch limit (which for Round
Two increases to 80). He also will follow less of a script with his
relievers, letting specific matchups and competitive situations dictate
his use of personnel.

“I don’t know that we’re locked in to
a certain amount of innings as we are as much watching him develop and
get into the game,” Martinez said of Peavy, whom he removed after just
23 pitches in three shutout innings against Mexico. “He breezed the
other day. He was free and easy. And he did throw more pitches down in
the bullpen after his start.”

As Mexico and the United
States advanced to Anaheim, a tournament darling, South Africa, left
for its long flight home. The overmatched team (featuring several
teenagers) lost all three games but captured onlookers’ fancy by
leading Canada after eight innings and showing little awe for its
competition. Before facing Clemens Sunday, DH Patrick Naude said,
“We’re not going to hold back. We’re not going to go up there and be
intimidated.”

Clemens yielded only a groundball single in 4
1/3 innings, striking out six. Meanwhile the Americans batted around
twice in the first three innings, pounding South African starter Carl
Michaels and three relievers for 18 hits overall, six of them for extra
bases.

Despite the drubbing, South Africa viewed the game
positively. “This is like a dream come true to me,” said pitcher Jared
Elario, who pitched a scoreless fifth while retiring all-stars Derrek
Lee and Randy Winn.

In fact, Elario and manager Rick
Magnante said they would have preferred to play nine innings, no matter
what the score became. But they were not allowed to waive the mercy
rule and let more players join the fun of taking their best personal
shot at the United States.

“Given an opportunity to allow
all the players to participate today, that would have been my goal,”
said Magnante, a minor league manager and scout in the Athletics
orgnaization. “I think that could have been better achieved had we
played nine innings.”

With the WBC’s first round having
ousted every underdog and advanced every favorite–the only club that
wasn’t heavily favored to enter the second round was Mexico–mercy
rules will almost certainly be rendered unnecessary. After a first
round of somewhat exhibition-style baseball, the competition is about
to heat up.

Said Griffey, “We are going to be a little more focused.”

So will eyes on games that should only get better from here.

International | #2006 #International Affairs #Olympics

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