ANAHEIM--They had their backs to the wall, their fate in their own hands, and the man manager Buck Martinez called the best big-game pitcher in baseball, Roger Clemens, taking the hill for them.
Still, the United States came up empty in Round Two of the World Baseball Classic, falling 2-1 to Mexico. The loss eliminated Team USA from the Classic.
Emerging Devil Rays star Jorge Cantu had two RBIs, and Mario Valenzuela went 2-for-2, scoring both runs and adding a great catch in right field, as Mexico triumphed. Mexico, the U.S., and Japan all finished the round with identical 1-2 records, and in a tiebreaker involving runs allowed against common opponents, Japan advances to the WBC semifinals, which kick off Saturday in San Diego.
"You never prepare for defeat. It's a disappointing loss," Martinez said. "We were well-prepared against Mexico having faced them before. We pitched very well against them, and they scored one more run than us. We never really got into a groove with the bats."
Pitching dominated the game, as Mexico starter and Pirates lefthander Oliver Perez lacked sharpness but allowed only one hit and one walk over the first three innings. Relievers Ricardo Rincon and Oscar Villareal were magnificent in the middle, shutting down nine U.S. batters in order over the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings. Mexico used eight pitchers overall and three in the ninth--lefthander Jorge de la Rosa, who struck out Ken Griffey Jr. to start the inning; righty Luis Ayala, who left with an injury; and David Cortes.
The journeyman Cortes threw one pitch, and it shattered Vernon Wells' bat and started a 6-4-3 game-ending double play. The U.S. mustered only three hits in the game.
"You have to tip your hat to the quality of pitching we saw throughout the tournament," Martinez added. "Again tonight, they made some great pitches out of that Team Mexico bullpen. Many of our hitters came back shaking their heads after seeing the quality of the pitching."
Mexico struck first in the bottom of the third, when Valenzuela led off with a shot into the right-field corner that Wells went hard after. Wells leaped at the wall, and the ball caromed into the field of play. Valenzuela legged out an easy double, but the call was immediately protested by Mexico manager Paquin Estrada, who claimed the ball had hit the right-field foul pole for a home run. The umpires conferred, and Valenzuela stayed at second with a double. Replays showed the ball was a home run, but the original call stood.
Mexico was livid, with pitcher Esteban Loaiza and others taking to the field to express their displeasure. But the point became moot two outs and two batters later when Cantu continued his hot streak and laced a single to score Valenzuela. Clemens then struck out Vinny Castilla on 3-2 count to end the inning and prevent any future scoring.
The U.S. got the run back in the fourth inning, with Chipper Jones starting things off with a bang, knocking a double off the wall to straight-away center. Alex Rodriguez followed with a shot to right-center, but Valenzuela tracked the ball and made a leaping catch at the wall. Jones tagged up and made it to third with one out. Vernon Wells lofted a fly to right, with Jones tagging again, this time to score, barely beating a strong throw from Valenzuela.
Mexico again employed the combination of Valenzuela and Cantu to score their next run, which proved to be the winner. Valenzuela started the fifth with a crisp single on Clemens' first pitch. Luis C. Garcia expertly laid down a sacrifice bunt, moving Valenzuela to second. Alfredo Amezaga slapped a soft liner just past shortstop Derek Jeter's glove to move Valenzuela to third, and Clemens was lifted to a standing ovation, having thrown what might have been the last competitive pitch of his career, his 73rd of the game.
Scott Shields entered, and Cantu grounded out on the infield on a tough hopper to Jeter, scoring Valenzuela. Shields induced Castilla to pop out to end the inning, and the procession of great Mexican relievers started in the sixth. Mexico never looked back.
Despite the loss and elimination, Martinez remained upbeat about the U.S. performance. "I couldn't have been more proud of how these guys went about their business since day one," the manager said. "There's been a lot said about the U.S. not taking this tournament seriously, but I can guarantee you, there's a lot of guys down in that clubhouse hurting right now."
Korea has already advanced from Pool One into the semifinals. The two teams from Pool Two to make the final four are Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The World Baseball Classic's semifinals kick off Saturday at Petco Park at noon local time, 3 p.m. Eastern Time, as Cuba plays the Dominican. In their previous meeting in Round Two, the Dominicans topped Cuba, 7-3.
Saturday's other semifinal game will pit Korea against Japan. In their previous two WBC matchups, Korea has prevailed each time in one-run games, 3-2 and 2-1.
Korea, of course, has been the surprise of the tournament with a perfect 6-0 record. When asked for a tourney championship favorite, Buck Martinez did not hesitate. "Korea. Absolutely," he said.