USA Earns Quick, Close Win Against Mexico

PHOENIX–Let’s face it, it ain’t every day you get to go to a ballgame with two different chants for Me-Xi-Co!–a
quick one punctuated by three staccato claps, and a more deliberate one
that, if you listened carefully, sounded an awful lot like Yan-kees Suck!

again, it could have been that anyway. The Chase Field crowd of 32,727
that saw the United States’ 2-0 win over Mexico the World Baseball
Classic Pool B opener Tuesday afternoon sounded split just about evenly
between the two clubs, with the consistently louder half rooting for
Mexico. To those fans all Americans are Yankees–and, when wearing
uniforms between foul lines, just as despised as those from the Bronx.

is closer to Mexico than to any of the other 49 states, so this game
was bound to demonstrate all that the WBC has to offer–baseball dipped
in an international lacquer, shining in some ways and slightly scuffed
in others. As WBC critics complain about interrupting spring training
and pitch limits perverting all proceedings, this game did wind up
advertising the type of baseball the tournament promises.

fans brought a lot of electricity into the game,” said Team USA third
baseman Chipper Jones, who came on in the seventh and homered in his
only at-bat. “I never played winter ball, never got to play in a
Caribbean Series . . . I probably had more butterflies today than any
playoff game.”

Like many WBC games to follow, this one was
an amalgam of All-Star Game (Team USA used 14 position players and
seven pitchers), postseason clash (players claimed to want to win
badly) and spring-training test, given how the players’ bodies are not
quite yet in game shape. But as the tight game progressed with the
growing reality that the big, bad United States might actually lose and
jeopardize its tournament future, players came to appreciate the unique
competition that lies ahead.

“It was all that and I had a
brownie too,” said USA pitcher Mike Timlin, who earned the victory with
a perfect fourth inning. “It’s probably bigger than any World Series
win I (could) have ever had, representing my country. This is my
All-Star Game. This is my Olympics.”

At least to the United
States, the tournament’s infamous pitch limits became as required as
lefthanded catching mitts. Martinez had vowed he would yank starter
Jake Peavy after three innings regardless of his pitch count, and
followed through despite the Padres righthander throwing just 23
pitches in that time. That load was considerably less than what Peavy
had at this same time last year; in a Cactus League game last March 5
against the Angels, Peavy threw 38 pitches.

Martinez’ six
subsequent relievers threw only one inning apiece. (“The game went
right on plan,” he said.) Joe Nathan threw 16 pitches while recording
three strikeouts in his eighth inning, and to the relief of Twins fans
everywhere found his right arm still attached afterward. He did
acknowledge that he threw his pitches with more fervor than he usually
would in early March.

“With as many people that were here
and into the game, it just steps it up a level and brings an intensity
there,” Nathan said. “I’m not sure what my velocity was, but it felt
like there was more behind it because of the crowd.”

the pitching procession, it was easy to miss that Team USA used just 88
pitches to throw a four-hit shutout. (This led to a shocking game time
of just two hours and six minutes.) As expected, throwing early strikes
was crucial: Team USA faced just two batters over the minimum of 27,
and started all but six off with strikes. If Mexican hitters were being
patient to try to raise pitch counts, it didn’t work: Twelve took
first-pitch strikes to start in an early hole.

Team USA’s
lineup didn’t generate much offense, but it looked great on paper, with
new Yankees teammates Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter leading off,
followed by former Mariners teammates Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex
Rodriguez, with all-stars Mark Teixeira and Derek Lee following. Team
USA never trailed, scoring both of its runs on solo homers by Lee and
Jones, but the game was always close enough to leave the Americans
fearful of losing.

“We never breathed a sigh of relief until
after the game,” Damon said. “We knew that one swing of the bat could
be the difference.”

The game was close thanks to four strong
innings by Mexican starter Rodrigo Lopez and two shutout relief innings
from Elmer Dessens. Lopez’s 54 pitches did flirt with the 65-pitch
limit, but he hinted he could have pitched further.

“I felt
good,” Lopez said. “Usually when you’re not in good condition, you feel
tired or you feel you have a sore arm after finishing pitching. But
it’s not the case today. I felt really good.”

Team USA plays
Canada on Wednesday afternoon–Dontrelle Willis will start against
Orioles prospect Adam Loewen–with the Americans no doubt entering the
proceedings with a greater idea of what international baseball
competition feels like. And what this first World Baseball Classic can
ultimately become.

Lee said he was so hyped up after his
fourth-inning home run that he had to remind himself not to miss a
base. But even before his heroics, as Lee saw the flags flying and
heard the chants of Me-Xi-Co! and U-S-A! dueling in the stands, he knew this tournament would be like nothing he’d ever experienced.

“When I ran out on the field,” Lee said, “It was like, ‘OK, this is big. This is going to be serious.’ “