PHOENIX–Just when you thought you’d seen everything . . .
Two days and three games into Pool D play in the World Baseball Classic, there’s a mad scramble for the second and final spot out of the pool into the second round, after Mexico defeated the United States 5-2 at Chase Field Friday night before a crowd of 44,256. Adrian Gonzalez hit a home run and had three RBIs to lead Mexico to the win.
So heading into the weekend, the United States, Canada and Mexico all know that one more loss eliminates them. Meanwhile Italy–yes noted baseball power Italy–is in the driver’s seat. Sitting at 2-0, with a 10-run win over Canada and a one-run win over Mexico, Italy knows that of the many things that can happen on Saturday and Sunday, few would keep them from traveling to the second round in Miami.
In comparing surprises, the Team USA’s loss to Mexico doesn’t equal the shock of Italy’s 2-0 start. Yes, with a lineup of major league all-stars (aside from the many notable absences) the U.S. is one of the favorites of this year’s World Baseball Classic. But it’s also just as clear that when it comes to the WBC, the U.S. is still searching for a winning formula. The loss dropped the U.S. to 7-8 all-time in the tournament.
Team USA has five 2012 all-stars in the lineup and put last year's National League Cy Young winner, R.A. Dickey, on the mound in its tourney opener. Mexico, which lost to Italy on Thursday, countered with a lineup that featured multiple players who haven't sniffed the big leagues.
That didn't seem to matter. Eduardo Arrendondo and Ramiro Pena led off the game with back-to-back hits and both scored before Dickey got out of the first. Two innings later, Gonzalez's two-run home run gave Mexico all the scoring it needed.
Dickey gave up four runs in four innings, while Mexico starter Yovani Gallardo allowed one run in 3 1/3 innings. He handed the ball to an assembly line of six relievers who held the U.S. to one run over the final 5 2/3 innings.
The U.S. had its chances. Team USA left runners in scoring position in the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth innings. Twice Giancarlo Stanton came up in late innings with runners on. Twice he hit long fly balls that were caught on the warning track.
"We couldn't mount that one big inning," U.S. third baseman David Wright said. "We couldn't get that one back-breaking hit. When they needed to make a pitch, they made the pitch."
As Italy has proven, in a short tournament talent doesn’t mean everything. Watching Italy and the United States play on the same field on the same day, the superior range, speed and athleticism of the U.S. team was obvious. Jimmy Rollins can make easy plays at shortstop that Italy’s Anthony Granato couldn't dream of making. Stanton's power during his batting practice puts anyone else to shame.
Over a 162-game schedule, those differences would play out. But on one day, a pop-up with runners on, a ball that finds a gap or a jolt of adrenaline can make the difference.
With that in mind, we enter what should be a wild final two days in Pool D, and for the U.S. winning out in a necessity–and even that might not be enough. Team USA has games with Italy (Saturday) and Canada (Sunday) remaining, and at best it will end up at 2-1. If that happens and Canada beats Mexico, both Canada and Mexico would have two losses and the U.S. would advance with Italy.
If the U.S. wins out and Mexico beats Canada, then Team USA, Italy and Mexico would all be 2-1 and their fate would come down to the WBC's modified run differential rules. Italy currently reigns supreme in the run differential, but if Canada is not involved in the tiebreaker, then Italy’s 10-run win over Canada will not be a factor. In case you’re wondering, the second tiebreaker involves earned runs scored and earned runs allowed. The fourth tiebreaker is batting average. We can only hope this is the last time that it ever needs to be mentioned.
“We not only need to win, but we need to score a bunch and not give up too many," Wright said.
Another factor is the pressure that comes with being the favorite. The U.S. could never have a baseball equivalent to the Miracle on Ice because in the eyes of the world, Team USA is the Soviet national team, no matter its record in the WBC.
"There's no doubt about it. There's a target on us," Rollins said. "But we're not the champions. The Japanese team are the champions. Until someone knocks them off, they should have the target. But it's America's game and we're going to get everybody's best."
In its first game, that was more than Team USA could handle.