Team USA loss creates questions

MIAMI -- The United States was in the process of going down meekly to Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic on Friday when a scout in attendance acknowledged the obvious. "I think these guys are ready to get back to their camps,'' he said. "Especially the guys on contending teams."

This is not entirely true, it turns out. In the late innings, Team USA mounted a charge and came one clutch hit away from earning an all-expenses paid trip to San Francisco. But that hit never came, and the U.S. lost 4-3 to cap another disappointing appearance in the Classic. While Japan, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico prepare to square off at AT&T Park in the semifinals beginning Sunday, the Americans will be watching the proceedings from afar. Or, just as likely, not watching at all.

That development came as a crushing disappointment to Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips, who won't be appearing in any Chamber of Commerce ads anytime soon for the Reds' spring training home in Goodyear, Ariz.

"I've got to go back to Goodyear, which I don't want to go back to, so it sucks, man," Phillips lamented. "It sucks bad. I wanted to go to San Francisco so bad."

When the Team USA players scatter to Goodyear and Maryvale, Viera, Port Charlotte and numerous other Florida and Arizona locales this weekend, they will take along warm memories of their two-week WBC bonding experience. They claim that they care and act as if they care and vow to spread the word to their teammates that the Classic is one heck of an entertaining diversion for two weeks in March.

But to this point, the U.S. is making a habit of standing forlornly in the dugout and watching as other nations' representatives wave flags and jump around the infield in celebration.

For the third straight time, the U.S. calls it a day at the WBC without sniffing the finals. In the inaugural 2006 tournament, Team USA failed to survive the second round. In 2009, the Americans bowed out with a 9-4 loss to Japan in the semis. This year things began promisingly enough, but back-to-back losses to Puerto Rico and the Dominican evened the United States' overall record in the Classic at 10-10.

Maybe the tournament is serving its intended purpose if it's spurring interest in Japan, the Latin locales and up-and-coming baseball countries such as Italy and the Netherlands. But if American baseball officials want their team to have more of an impact in future Classics, questions need to be asked about logistical or roster makeup issues that might be putting Team USA at a disadvantage.

While the Dominicans treat these games like a life-and-death experience and celebrate like Little Leaguers in Williamsport, the Americans refrain from showing emotion because they're intent on "respecting the game." While Puerto Rican manager Edwin Rodriguez is less afraid of making a move because it might hurt somebody's feelings, U.S. manager Joe Torre has to balance the desire to win with a mandate to make sure each player is handled in the manner prescribed by his individual club. And as more observers have wondered of late, should participation in the WBC be mandatory rather than optional?

They're all valid questions, yet Torre reacted peevishly when asked if there is some logistical element to the Classic that has contributed to three straight U.S. letdowns. He preferred to chalk up the latest result to the baseball gods, or the twists of fate that accompany baseball in a small sample size.

"John Elway had to win a Super Bowl for everybody to consider him a great, great player," Torre said. "It doesn't always happen. Ernie Banks never was in a World Series. It doesn't mean he wasn't a great player. It's just what happens in a short series.

"It's not easy to do. The one thing I've always talked to my players about is you want to make people happy and have people respect you, but to me it's more important to respect each other, because you're the only ones that know how tough it is to do what you do."

Nevertheless, one sequence in Friday's game was particularly instructive. USA starter Ryan Vogelsong was pitching well and had thrown 73 pitches, or seven short of his 80-pitch limit, with two out in the sixth. But Torre went to the mound and pulled him, in part because he wanted to make sure that Vogelsong was in fine working order when he rejoins the San Francisco Giants. Torre was going to push the envelope with only one pitcher in this tournament and it was Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

"Even though there's a pitch limit, it didn't mean we were going to get there," Torre said. "When you have [starters] going from 65 to 80 pitches, in that regard it's still spring training, and we weren't going to push anybody."

The decision to pull Vogelsong backfired when Torre called on Cleveland reliever Vinnie Pestano and stuck with him on a night when he clearly didn't have it. Pestano walked the bases loaded, walked the lefty-hitting Carlos Rivera to force in a run when Torre chose not to bring in Jeremy Affeldt, and gave up a two-run double to Andy Gonzalez to put the U.S. in a 4-0 hole.

The Americans never recovered, in part because of a failure to hit pitchers with undistinguished résumés. Nelson Figueroa pitched his heart out Friday night, but we're talking about a 38-year-old journeyman who is 20-35 with a 4.55 ERA over nine big league seasons. Then Giovanni Soto, Jose De La Torre, Xavier Cedeno, Fernando Cabrera and J.C. Romero took it to the house. It was one thing when the Dominican Republic shut down Team USA with a bullpen led by Fernando Rodney, Octavio Dotel, Kelvin Herrera, Santiago Casilla and Pedro Strop. This was something else entirely.

Maybe things would have been different if David Wright, the driving force in the Team USA lineup, hadn't gone down with an intercostal strain before the 3-1 loss to the Dominicans on Thursday. But the U.S. batting order still featured enough talent and big names to produce more offense than it did in the Classic. Wright's grand slam against Italy during the first round in Phoenix was the only U.S. homer of the entire tournament. In the three games against Puerto Rico and the Dominican in Miami, the Americans batted .252 with four extra-base hits.

"Certainly we didn't swing the bats great," said outfielder Ryan Braun. "There are no excuses, and there's no rhyme or reason for it. I think when you're not swinging the bats well collectively, everybody tries a little bit harder to pick each other up. It's human nature."

While American baseball fans are still deciding whether they want to embrace the tournament, the games certainly are a treat to watch, and the players who participate universally rave about the experience. Wright so desperately wanted to keep playing, he practically had to be dragged off the field. And Braun and Phillips said they will be happy to spread the World Baseball Classic gospel to anyone who inquires.

"I didn't know how big baseball was in other countries," Phillips said. "When you see other countries play, you're like, 'Wow, this is why I love playing this game.' You just see how everybody's passion is totally different than in our country. I can't wait to go back and just tell everybody how much fun I really had. If they have the chance, they should really do it."

Maybe a new wave of participants led by Bryce Harper, Mike Trout & Co. will finally get Team USA over the top four years from now. Or perhaps the Japanese and the Latin countries are more cut out for the event and will continue to dominate Classics to come. The Americans have four years between now and the 2017 event to try to figure out the answer.