Pitchers have desire, pedigree Team USA needs
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- All those months of planning comes down to this: With the likes of Justin Verlander, Andy Pettitte, Jered Weaver, Clayton Kershaw and David Price in the camps of their respective teams, will the starting ensemble assembled by manager Joe Torre for Team USA be good enough to win the World Baseball Classic?
Team USA finally opens the Classic on Friday at 9 p.m. ET at Chase Field against rival Mexico with Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey on the mound against Brewers right-hander Yovani Gallardo.
The U.S., which has finished no higher than fourth in the first two Classics won by Japan, can only go into the tournament with the pitching staff it has, not the pitching staff it wishes it had. The guys who are here want to be here.
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"Every single one of them is excited to be having this opportunity of playing for the U.S.," said Torre, whose team played its second and final exhibition tuneup, losing 8-7 to the Rockies at Salt River Fields on Wednesday night. "To me, they're here for a reason. Each and every one of them picked themselves up and left their teams. It's not because they have to be here. It's because they want to be."
Verlander told Torre that he didn't think he'd be ready to contribute to Team USA because he pitched for the Tigers deep into last October when Detroit was swept by the Giants in the World Series. He threw four shutout innings against the Blue Jays on Wednesday.
Pitching in the World Series didn't seem to matter to Giants right-hander Ryan Vogelsong, who is slated to start against Italy on Saturday night. Rangers left-hander Derek Holland is going on Sunday against Canada and its bevy of left-handed hitters.
Torre noted that left-hander Ross Detwiler will work behind Vogelsong on Saturday because that's his program prescribed by the Nationals. Considering a 65-pitch limit in the first round and throw days determined by their various clubs, Torre doesn't have much wiggle room to juggle the pitching. Save for injuries, there won't be any adjustments.
"We're staying with where we're going," Torre said. "You've got to remember that we set this up in coordination with their pitching coaches. So once we set when they're pitching, that's when they're pitching. I don't know what I would adjust anyhow."
Case in point: Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez won't pitch for the U.S. this weekend and isn't even with the team. Washington manager Davey Johnson wanted Gonzalez to make three starts for the Nats before pitching in the Classic and Thursday will be No. 3 against the Astros.
That will set Gonzalez up to start for Team USA on Tuesday at Miami's Marlins Park if the U.S. advances to the second round, where the limit rises to 80 pitches.
Really thinking ahead, Torre would have Gonzalez and Dickey ready to go in the semifinals and a possible final game at San Francisco's AT&T Park from March 17-19. By that time in the tournament, a starter can throw 95 pitches, which is just about a regulation start.
Dickey, traded by the Mets to the Blue Jays in the offseason, is the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner after a breakout 20-6 season. Gonzalez, 21-8, isn't even considered to be the best pitcher on his own team. Stephen Strasburg, a San Diego native, is. And he's another one who remained in Florida.
One can argue that Vogelsong may be fifth in the Giants' pecking order behind Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and now even Barry Zito. That's the rotation depth of the defending World Series champs. Holland, 12-7 last year with a 4.67 ERA, is the third best starter in a depleted Rangers rotation behind Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison, an 18-game winner last year.
Torre's decision to start Vogelsong on Saturday and Holland on Sunday was made simply because of logistics.
"I just wanted a left-hander against Canada," Torre said about a team that has 10 left-handed hitters, including a pair of All-Star first basemen, Justin Morneau of the Twins and Joey Votto of the Reds.
Vogelsong and Holland, though, have that winning pedigree as members of teams that played in the last three World Series. Holland is 3-0 in postseason play. Vogelsong was 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA alone in four starts this past postseason as the Giants won it all for the second time in three years. Vogelsong wasn't on the San Francisco team that defeated the Rangers in a five-game 2010 World Series. Holland was with Texas.
Neither should be daunted by the pressure of international play. Holland had a prep start for the Classic on Tuesday in an exhibition game against the White Sox at Camelback Ranch and pitched three innings of a 4-4 tie, allowing only one run.
"It's a huge honor. Something you dream about as a kid," Holland said about donning the red jerseys with blue numerals and white trim. "To do it for the first time is an unbelievable feeling. I can't really describe it. You're defending the country, in a way, for baseball. We just need to go out and do what we want to do and to make our country proud."
That attitude is the edge Torre was looking for this past offseason as he and general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. put together the team. The players who didn't have it stayed home.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.