For USA, winning in Classic tougher than people think
PHOENIX -- The level of competition in the World Baseball Classic is, as manager of Team USA Joe Torre put it Sunday, "ferocious."
For many of us -- us being American baseball fans -- there is a belief that victory in international competition is basically a birthright for our national baseball team. The record of this competition says something different.
So when Team USA defeated Canada, 9-4, on Sunday, in a win-or-go-home game for both clubs, some of us tended to have a feeling, of, well, yes, of course, this is exactly what Team USA is supposed to do.
|Bracket | Full scoreboard|
Isn't this, after all, "our" game? Even though we are now trying very hard to share the grand old game as part of one great, big, nifty global baseball village, shouldn't we have a Major League advantage due to our huge head start? After all, we invented the game. The research that indicates the ancient Egyptians were playing a game with a ball and a stick? OK, but check the papyrus; there's nothing in there about on-base percentage.
It turns out that the international competition is much more strenuous than we might have thought, and that defeat for Team USA should be regarded more as a possibility than a national catastrophe.
By winning Sunday, Team USA finished with a 2-1 record in first-round play and qualified for advancement, along with Team Italy. The Italian team proved the contention that there is more good baseball being played in more places than ever.
A loss by America's team on Sunday would have led to a serious round of teeth-gnashing among American observers of the game. Had Team USA lost against Canada, this would have been America's worst performance in three Classics. The other two performances weren't all that overwhelming, either. The U.S. couldn't advance beyond the second round in 2006 and finished in fourth place in 2009.
No excuses are being made here, but this competition is much tougher than many people realize. Sunday's game was not as easy as the 9-4 score might have indicated. This was a good game, an exciting game, even a dramatic game, with Team USA coming from behind to win. The U.S. did not own the lead until the eighth inning, when Adam Jones' two-run double turned the direction of this contest.
The Canadians fielded a representative team -- the adjective "plucky" was in wide usage among our neighbors to the north regarding this squad. This group had bounced back from a 10-run mercy-rule loss to Italy, by winning both a game and a fight against Mexico. And anyone who has been paying attention understands that Canadian baseball, whether measured by quality or quantity, is making notable progress.
Team USA starting pitcher Derek Holland, after a difficult second inning, settled in and gave the Americans five solid innings.
"For me personally, it was a fight," Holland said. "We were out there battling the whole time. It was an unbelievable game. Both sides were playing hard. We came out on top."
Japan won both of the previous Classics, and deservedly so, based on the quality of the Japanese play in both tournaments. But Team USA remains the target for opponents in the Classic. This the roster that is fully stocked with Major Leaguers, not to mention Major League stars. This is the home of baseball's highest level of achievement. Opponents are motivated to the skies when playing against Team USA.
"When you've got the letters U-S-A across your chest like we have, they always put a feather in their cap if they can take care of us," Torre said. "And that's really a credit to us, and a compliment to us, I should say, in understanding what our country represents.
"The competition I have seen has been ferocious."
Another credit to us is having Torre as manager of Team USA, but a full exploration of that concept would take at least one more column.
Another issue with the American team and its roster of Major League talent is, as Torre puts it: "Big league clubs are still in Spring Training. We're borrowing their players."
This is not just a matter of limiting players' innings and pitchers' pitch counts. Torre must also make sure that all the players get enough innings, at-bats, etc. This cannot be a matter of the manager merely putting his best players on the field and leaving them there for nine innings.
So here we are at the highest level of international baseball. (Forget about baseball getting back into the Olympics. It doesn't work logistically for the Major Leagues in August, and the Classic is a more than suitable international replacement.)
We still expect victory from the American team in the World Baseball Classic. We will accept nothing less. But the competition turns out to be a much more difficult proposition than we originally thought. It requires a global perspective to cope with the notion that this can be, in fact, good for baseball.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.