U.S. no longer envy of baseball world
Ken Rosenthal / FOXSports.com
ANAHEIM, Calif. - Time for all those American kids to stop playing video games, not to mention football, basketball and soccer.
If the World Baseball Classic has proven anything, it's that the United States no longer is the pre-eminent baseball power.
True, not all of the best Americans are playing. But even a diluted U.S. team figured to handle Canada or Korea with little difficulty.
Team USA lost its second game of the tournament Monday night, falling to Korea, 7-3. If not for a blown umpire's call, the U.S. also might have fallen to Japan the day before.
Back-to-back second-round defeats would have meant near-certain elimination and dropped the U.S. to 2-3 overall, with one of its victories over hapless South Africa.
As it stands, even if the U.S. survives the second round and wins its semifinal matchup, it will face a starting-pitching crisis in the championship game.
National pastime? Once upon a time. No more.
Team USA isn't assured of reaching the final round even if it beats Mexico on Thursday night in possibly the final start of Roger Clemens' career. Japan must lose one of its next two games to guarantee that the U.S. would advance with a victory.
If Japan beats both Mexico and Korea, the U.S. could be eliminated before it even plays Mexico due to the WBC's tie-breaking formula — fewest runs allowed in games between the teams tied.
The U.S. already is at a disadvantage, having allowed 10 runs against Japan and Korea. Japan allowed four runs against the U.S., Korea three.
Dontrelle Willis may have dominated major-league hitters in 2005, but he's struggling to keep batters off base in the WBC. (Chris Carlson / Associated Press)
As if all that is not daunting enough, if the U.S. somehow reaches the championship game in San Diego, it likely will have little choice but to start struggling Marlins left-hander Dontrelle Willis, who has allowed 17 baserunners in 5 2/3 innings in his two WBC starts.
Clemens will be finished for the tournament if he exceeds 49 pitches Thursday. WBC rules state that a pitcher can not pitch for a minimum of four days after throwing 50 or more pitches. The WBC championship game is Monday.
Padres right-hander Jake Peavy is scheduled to start the semifinal game Saturday, leaving Willis as the only option for Monday. The U.S. has no other starting pitchers on its staff.
Indians left-hander C.C. Sabathia ducked out of the WBC at the last minute, but Clemens, Willis and Peavy ranked first, third and eighth in the majors last season in ERA.
They should be good enough.
"I don't think there's a man in that clubhouse who doesn't want to give the ball to Dontrelle Willis," U.S. manager Buck Martinez said. "It's just a matter of getting him one more chance."
Perhaps, but other American deficiencies are evident.
The starting corner outfielders Monday night, the Blue Jays' Vernon Wells and Rockies' Matt Holliday, combined to go 0-for-7. Wells is a fine player, but Holliday, entering his third season, is largely a Coors Field creation.
The Yankees' Johnny Damon, slowed by a troublesome left shoulder, did not start for the second straight game. The Giants' Randy Winn and the Braves' Jeff Francoeur are the team's only other corner outfielders. And Francoeur, a second-year player, has batted only three times in the tournament.
Where is Barry Bonds when you need him?
Of the top seven American outfielders in on-base/slugging percentage last season, only Ken Griffey Jr. is participating. The other six — the Reds' Adam Dunn, Cardinals' Jim Edmonds and Padres' Brian Giles; Phillies' Pat Burrell, Brewers' Geoff Jenkins and Yankees' Gary Sheffield — are in spring training with their major-league clubs.
The American's lack of left-handed bullpen depth also became an issue against Korea; the Rockies' Brian Fuentes had worked the previous day, and the only other lefty reliever, Al Leiter, is a liability. The U.S. added Leiter only after Billy Wagner, the best lefty reliever in the game, backed out.
In the fourth inning, Korea inserted Hee Seop Choi, a left-handed hitter, for Tae Kyun Kim, its right-handed cleanup man, without fear of Choi seeing a quality left-hander the rest of the game. Choi hit a three-run homer off Astros righty Dan Wheeler, extending Korea's lead to 6-1.
Both Korea and Japan, the Asian quarterfinalists in the WBC, are near-flawless in their execution. Major-league scouts say Korea's professional league is the equivalent of Class AA, but its national team appears to be a level or two above.
Korea is 5-0 in the tournament. Its defense has yet to commit an error. Its bullpen has allowed three runs in 25 2/3 innings. Its No. 3 hitter, Seung Yeop Lee, leads the WBC with five homers and 11 RBIs.
The vaunted U.S. offense was shut down Monday night by six Korean pitchers, only two of whom — Byung-Hyun Kim and Dae Sung Koo — have pitched in the majors. The other two major leaguers on Korea's staff, Jae Seo and Chan Ho Park, did not pitch.
"Something happened today which nobody could believe," Korean manager In Sik Kim said.
The days of the U.S. being the envy of the baseball world are over.