by Alan Schwarz
March 9, 2006
PHOENIX–Through the impassioned cheers of Mexican fans in Chase Field before their countrymen played Canada Thursday night, effectively deciding a berth in the second round of the World Baseball Classic, a solitary mariachi trumpet sliced through the din, playing the prelude to “Charge!”
Only eight minutes later, it was playing taps.
Mexico battered Canadian starter Jeff Francis for four runs in the top of the first inning and cruised behind starter Esteban Loiaza to a 9-1 win to clinch the top ranking Pool B and advance to the second round in Anaheim beginning Sunday. Both teams have 2-1 records, as will the United States if it beats heavy underdog South Africa on Friday, but Mexico and most likely Team USA will survive the tiebreaker system–eliminating Canada just 24 hours after its shocking upset of the United States Wednesday night.
Mexican players afterward all wore shirts reading “Nosotros Ya Lo Sabemos” (We Already Know It) on the front and “Q’Lo Sepa El Mundo” (Let the World Know It) on the back, with Loiaza claiming Mexico has been overlooked as a WBC contender.
“You always hear about the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico–but you never mention Mexico,” Loiaza said. “You see commercials with those countries but never Mexico. I think we have to prove ourselves on the field.”
Canada, whose roller-coaster tournament included a come-from-behind opening win over South Africa, the 8-6 win over the United States and then the deflating loss to Mexico, can advance only if South Africa beats Team USA on Friday (3 p.m. ET). Canada was so discouraged by that scenario that all its players were scheduled to fly back to their respective major league clubs Friday morning.
“Anytime you control your own fate and let it get away from you, it’s disappointing,” said Canada manager Ernie Whitt, whose team would lose a three-way tiebreaker because it yielded 15 runs in games among the tied teams, compared to Mexico (3) and the United States (8). “But it’s not like we beat ourselves. We got beat. You have to hand it to Mexico.”
In its final must-win game, the United States will start future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens, a 22-year veteran of the major leagues, against South African Carl Michaels, a 24-year-old veteran of the Cape Town and Western Province Summer amateur leagues. As he watched the Canada-Mexico game from the Chase Field stands, Michaels marveled at how he was about to pitch against a living legend.
“Never in a million years,” said Michaels, a former Brewers signee who never pitched in Organized Baseball because of arm injuries. “Never in a million years.”
Michaels could still fare better than Canada’s Francis, who might as well have been pitching in his home park of Coors Field. After retiring the first two batters, the Rockies lefthander hit former teammate Vinny Castilla square in the ribs, and then watched his pitches get hit even harder: Four straight, scorching doubles from Erubiel Durazo, Geronimo Gil, Luis Alfonso Garcia and Miguel Ojeda made the score 4-0. He gave up a two-run home run in the second inning to Jorge Cantu before being mercifully yanked, trailing 6-0.
Loiaza was as masterful as Francis was dreadful. He gave up three hits and struck out four on 62 pitches in his first five shutout innings, tying Panama’s Bruce Chen and Japan’s Koji Uehara for the longest WBC start thus far. He started the sixth, walking leadoff batter Stubby Clapp before being removed, and tipping his cap to a standing ovation from the crowd of 15,744 as he left the field.
Clapp eventually scored Canada’s sole run for the only demerit on Loiaza’s record.
“The first two hitters that I faced, I noticed they were expecting that pitch inside,” Loiaza said. “So I kept away and away.”
Cantu, who later added an RBI single to his home run, said he wanted to advertise Mexico’s baseball talent to more than just his fellow major leaguers.
“All the American people are watching. All the Latin people are watching. The whole world is watching,” Cantu said. “Back in our country, all they talk about is soccer. Especially in Mexico City and then south. We want to let our people know how important baseball is and all the talent that we have.”
The American talent on display tomorrow might be slightly different that in games thus far. Team USA manager Buck Martinez drew some criticism for substituting players mainly to limit and spread playing time, rather than for in-game strategy. (In particular, in the loss to Canada, he removed catcher Jason Varitek in favor of Brian Schneider, despite Varitek’s earlier grand slam and overall offensive edge.) He vowed to keep his best lineup in the South Africa game.
“Those guys are gonna stay out there until they get it done,” said Martinez, who is sitting the 0-for-8 Mark Teixeira to start Chipper Jones in the DH spot. Martinez hinted that he might be less conservative in limiting Clemens’s pitch threshold than he might have been otherwise. “I don’t have any GM to answer to with Roger,” he said with a laugh.
Only minutes after Mexico’s immediate fireworks all but put Team USA in Round Two–and saved future WBC television ratings–commissioner Bud Selig was asked if he was pleased at the outcome.
“I’m supposed to be neutral here, so I’ll let you figure it out,” Selig said. “My mood’s pretty good.”