USA earns quick, close win over Mexico

by Alan Schwarz
March 7, 2006

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!

Then 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.

Phoenix 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.

“Mexican 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.”

With 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.’ “