U.S. comeback falls short against Canada

by Alan Schwarz
March 8, 2006

PHOENIX–Make no mistake, Chase Utley posed. When the Team USA second baseman launched a shot deep into the Phoenix evening, he joined the rest of Chase Field in assuming that his imminent three-run home run would complete a stunning comeback and save Team USA from one of the most shocking upsets in international baseball history. Utley flipped his bat and began his trot, figuring that the world had regained its order.

It didn’t. Canadian center fielder Adam Stern, punctuating the best single-game performance in this young World Baseball Classic, jumped against the fence to snare Utley’s drive and the hopes of Team USA along with it. The eighth inning ended, Canada held on to its 8-6 lead, and won a game that will determine the outcome of Pool B less than bruise 50 states worth of egos.

“It’s a very quiet locker room right now,” U.S. manager Buck Martinez said. “Everyone feels like they got kicked in the stomach.”

Canada scored in each of the first five innings, mounting an 8-0 lead behind lefty starter Adam Loewen. Team USA erupted for six runs off two relievers in the bottom of the fifth–capped by a 448-foot grand slam by Jason Varitek–but never scored again, stunning the crowd of 16,993 at Chase Field.

“I just didn’t do anything right today,” said U.S. starter Dontrelle Willis, who gave up five runs in 2 2/3 innings. “Just one of those games where you just tip your hat to the other opposing team.”

Despite the outcome, both Canada (2-0) and the United States (1-1) can either advance to the second round or still be eliminated, depending on the outcome of other games. But Canada can determine its own fate: A win against Mexico in Thursday’s game (8 p.m. ET) behind starter Jeff Francis will make it the Pool B winner.

If Canada loses, given Mexico’s 10-4 win over South Africa Wednesday night–and assuming a probable Team USA win over South Africa Friday behind ace Roger Clemens–Canada, Mexico and Team USA would all finish 2-1 and face a complicated tie-breaking system, one that will separate teams first by fewest runs allowed in games among each other.

Mexico beating Canada while scoring three runs or more would send Mexico and the United States advancing to the second round in Anaheim this Sunday. Mexico beating Canada while scoring two runs or less would advance Mexico and Canada, with the United States eliminated.

Assuming that win over South Africa isn’t exactly what Team USA is doing at the moment, though, Clemens or not. Wednesday’s loss to Canada showed what everyone in baseball knows: That single games can be as dangerous as licking lawnmower blades.

“I think one thing we have learned quickly in this international play is anything can happen,” Martinez said. “You put your flag on your chest and you go out there and play, and people get fueled by that. You see exceptional things being done by very competitive people.”

No one was more exceptional Wednesday than Stern, who is expected to stick with the Red Sox as a fifth outfielder this spring. The former Nebraska star hit an RBI triple, two-run single and solo, inside-the-park home run in the first five innings. He sparkled defensively as well, nabbing a sinking line drive to end the sixth inning and adding his against-the-wall grab against Utley to end the eighth.

“Any win in this tournament is huge, and coming against the USA, they have the most talent out there. I won’t lie,” Stern said. “But that’s why you play these games, and it’s a time of year where one game, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Over 162, I don’t know if we’d fare so hot. One game you’ve got to go out there and bust it. That’s what we did.”

Stern, who was so proud to have played for Canada in the 2004 Olympics that he tattooed a maple leaf and the Olympic rings above his heart, said that his American Red Sox teammates had teased him last week about how Canada would lose so fast in the WBC that he would barely miss any spring-training games. “I’ll have something to say about that,” he recalled telling them with a vengeful smile.

Even though he and his teammates said it loudly, and Canada came away with what instantly was called the country’s biggest win ever in international competition, the celebration would have to wait.

“I think we’re going to let this marinate for a few hours, but after that we have to get ready for Mexico,” Stern said. “Nothing’s guaranteed right now. Talk to us after tomorrow and we’ll have something to say.”