Team USA advances to second round behind Clemens

by Alan Schwarz
March 10, 2006

PHOENIX–As the wind blew strongly at Scottsdale Stadium on Friday afternoon, part of the breeze came from the United States’ sigh of relief.

By throttling South Africa 17-0 in a predictable massacre called after five innings under the mercy rule, Team USA officially advanced to the second round of the World Baseball Classic and survived its mild scare caused by Wednesday night’s loss to Canada. The win gave the U.S. the same 2-1 record in Pool B as both Mexico and Canada, but the three-way tiebreaker left Mexico and the United States the top two finishers based on runs allowed in games among the three teams.

Several players said the Canada loss would be on the team’s minds as it enters the second round against Mexico, Korea and Japan in Anaheim, Calif., beginning Sunday. That round will be played under the pool format as the first, using tiebreakers that many players admitted they hadn’t known until the past few days.

“It might be the best thing that ever happened to us going down the stretch because we put our destiny in other people’s hands,” Team USA third baseman Alex Rodriguez said. “I don’t think half the team knew what the heck was going on around here until some of you guys explained it to us.”

Added center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., who hit two three-run homers in the South Africa onslaught to give Team USA starter Roger Clemens an easy cushion, “Now that the second round is here, I think the intensity is gonna pick up. The guys are a week into spring training basically. I think it’s going to be a little more exciting.”

The United States is scheduled to face Japan at 4 p.m. ET Sunday with Mexico and Korea playing at 11 p.m. However, the game times could switch by request from ESPN, which will consider how the field for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is being announced at 6 p.m., during the early game.

Regardless of starting time, manager Buck Martinez said that he will change how he uses personnel the rest of the tournament. In the first three games, he removed regulars liberally to allow more players to get work; starters such as Rodriguez, Griffey and catcher Jason Varitek will now play considerably deeper into games, making the contests appear more like taut competition than spring-training exhibitions.

“I will use the players according to the game situation,” Martinez said. “We had the obligation to get these players ready for their respective teams when they go back, and I think that was a concern early on.”

Martinez said that many players, following the Canada loss, had told him that they were ready to play nine innings. Asked if they would have said that had Canada not upset the U.S. and jeopardized their tournament life, Martinez said, “Probably not. So that had a purpose.”

As it did in Round One, Team USA will use Jake Peavy, Dontrelle Willis and Clemens as its three starters. Japan is expected to use Koji Uehara to face Peavy, followed by Daisuke Matsuzaka and Shunsuke Watanabe. Mexico manager Paquin Estrada did not announce a rotation but will probably start Rodrigo Lopez on Sunday against Korea, which also has not announced a starter.

Martinez said that his starting pitchers will be used deeper into games as well, into the fourth or fifth innings and closer to the tournament pitch limit (which for Round Two increases to 80). He also will follow less of a script with his relievers, letting specific matchups and competitive situations dictate his use of personnel.

“I don’t know that we’re locked in to a certain amount of innings as we are as much watching him develop and get into the game,” Martinez said of Peavy, whom he removed after just 23 pitches in three shutout innings against Mexico. “He breezed the other day. He was free and easy. And he did throw more pitches down in the bullpen after his start.”

As Mexico and the United States advanced to Anaheim, a tournament darling, South Africa, left for its long flight home. The overmatched team (featuring several teenagers) lost all three games but captured onlookers’ fancy by leading Canada after eight innings and showing little awe for its competition. Before facing Clemens Sunday, DH Patrick Naude said, “We’re not going to hold back. We’re not going to go up there and be intimidated.”

Clemens yielded only a groundball single in 4 1/3 innings, striking out six. Meanwhile the Americans batted around twice in the first three innings, pounding South African starter Carl Michaels and three relievers for 18 hits overall, six of them for extra bases.

Despite the drubbing, South Africa viewed the game positively. “This is like a dream come true to me,” said pitcher Jared Elario, who pitched a scoreless fifth while retiring all-stars Derrek Lee and Randy Winn.

In fact, Elario and manager Rick Magnante said they would have preferred to play nine innings, no matter what the score became. But they were not allowed to waive the mercy rule and let more players join the fun of taking their best personal shot at the United States.

“Given an opportunity to allow all the players to participate today, that would have been my goal,” said Magnante, a minor league manager and scout in the Athletics orgnaization. “I think that could have been better achieved had we played nine innings.”

With the WBC’s first round having ousted every underdog and advanced every favorite–the only club that wasn’t heavily favored to enter the second round was Mexico–mercy rules will almost certainly be rendered unnecessary. After a first round of somewhat exhibition-style baseball, the competition is about to heat up.

Said Griffey, “We are going to be a little more focused.”

So will eyes on games that should only get better from here.