by Matt Meyers
March 10, 2006
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.–In its World Baseball Classic opener against Italy, Australia could not do anything right offensively or defensively. In their second game against Venezuela, the Aussies figured out the pitching and defense, but offense eluded them once again as they again managed only one hit and fell to Venezuela 2-0.
Venezuela got all it could handle from the knuckleballing Phil Brassington and a quartet of relievers, but because Australia failed to score for the second straight game the favored Venezuelans were able to emerge victorious and advance to the second stage of group play.
“We held (Bob) Abreu, (Miguel) Cabrera and (Magglio) Ordonez to 1-for-12 tonight,” Australian manager Jon Deeble said. “We can do it with pitching and defense, but we need to get better offensively . . . We need to see the 96-97 mile an hour fastball that we don’t get a chance to see.”
Brassington’s feel for his knuckler was shaky early on. He walked leadoff hitter Omar Vizquel, who was subsequently thrown out trying to steal second. He then surrendered a two-out single to Bobby Abreu and a walk to Miguel Cabrera before retiring Magglio Ordonez.
Ramon Hernandez homered to open the second-which turned out to be enough for Venezuela–but Brassington settled down after that as he retired nine of the next 11 hitters to take Australia into the fifth.
The Aussies were once again helpless at the plate as Venezuelan righthander Kelvim Escobar fanned four of the first six hitters he faced and frequently touched 97 mph with his fastball.
Australia’s only threat came in the fourth when Brad Harman (Phillies) led off with Australia’s lone hit. He was erased on a bunt attempt by second baseman Trent Durrington, but the second baseman promptly stole second, and then third on ball four to first baseman Justin Huber.
“I always have the green light and Escobar is pretty slow to the plate,” the speedy Durrington said. “He is 1.6 (seconds from home to the plate) so I knew I could steal on him when I got the appropriate lead.”
The stage was perfectly set for Dave Nilsson, the most accomplished player in the history of Australian baseball, to put the upset wheels in motion, but the former all-star harmlessly grounded into a 4-6-3 double play.
“It is one of those things that happens,” Deeble said. “Obviously you would like to see him hit the ball into the gap there. The coaches played a practice game the other day and I forgot how hard it is to hit the ball.”
In the fifth, Brassington gave way to Peter Moyland, a former Twins farmhand who rejuvenated his pitching career last June by dropping his arm angle to low three-quarters. In the process the pharmaceutical sales rep went from throwing in the high-80s to the mid-90s. He showed his newfound velocity by fanning two in the fifth and then Magglio Ordonez and Hernandez to open the sixth.
“I got a couple of guys that don’t like the knuckleball, and when you go from that to a sidearmer throwing 95-96, it is tough,” Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo said.
Moyland, who is affectionately referred to as “Wild Thing” by his Deeble in honor of Charlie Sheen’s character in “Major League” because of his sideburns, glasses and tattoos, lived up to the moniker Thursday.
He fanned two in the fifth, then whiffed Ordonez and Hernandez to open the sixth. He allowed a single to Juan Rivera and threw 11 straight balls to load the bases and run the count to 3-0 on Vizquel. After getting two fastballs over and forcing a foul ball, he walked Vizquel and forced in Venezuela’s second and final run.
Like Moyland, Brassington is a flamed out farmhand. Originally a fifth-round pick of the Royals in 1993 out of Lamar, the 36-year-old saw his pro career end in the independent Northern League in 2001 but had always fiddled around with a knuckler.
He made some starts in pre-tournament exhibitions against Taiwan and proved himself worthy of a starting position.
“It is a quantum leap for me,” said Brassington, who sells real estate for a living. “I am still trying to deal with clients here on e-mail. Some don’t know I am here.”
The Aussies would also get a scoreless 1 1/3 innings from lefthander Adrian Burnside and a scoreless inning apiece from righthander Phil Stockman and righthander Tristan Crawford, who struck out Cabrera and Ordonez back-to-back (both looking) on 12-to-6 curveballs that were as vicious as they were identical.
While Australia did an excellent job of preventing runs, it was not as though Venezuela lacked chances. The Venezuelans left 14 men on base thanks to 13 walks issued by the Australians.
In what amounts to poetic symmetry, the Aussies fanned 13 times and remained scoreless for the tournament. Big leaguers Tony Armas, Gustavo Chacin, Jorge Julio and Francisco Rodriguez combined for 4 1/3 scoreless innings of their own in which none allowed a baserunner while fanning eight.
With the victory, Venezuela earned second place in the pool and a trip to the second round of pool play in Puerto Rico. Australia is left with a game on Friday evening with Pool D champions the Dominican Republic. Though the game is meaningless in the standings, it will give Australia another opportunity to compete with the world’s best.
“Tonight was great, but we have to take the next step,” Deeble said. “It was nice to compete with them; now we have to beat them.”