Team USA faces harsh reality in face of high hopes
MIAMI -- Brandon Phillips called his experience with Team USA in the World Baseball Classic "a dream come true."
It, however, was not one of those live happily ever after moments.
Good as the experience may have been, there was a rude awakening for Team USA in the international competition -- again.
After opening the second round of the Classic with a 7-1 victory against Puerto Rico on Tuesday, Team USA got knocked off by the Dominican Republic, 3-1, at Marlins Park on Thursday night, and was eliminated by Puerto Rico, 4-3, on Friday night.
Not much charming about this third time around for the Classic, at least not for Team USA.
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Japan will be seeking its third Classic title in San Francisco starting Sunday. Team USA didn't advance to the final four for the second time.
It was knocked out by Korea and Mexico in 2006, and by the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico this time. In 2009, Team USA advanced to the semifinals, but lost to Japan.
Bottom line is Team USA is 10-10 all-time in Classic play.
It's far from expectations that are placed on a team from a nation that considers baseball its national pastime. It is, however, reality.
"I guess John Elway had to win a Super Bowl for everybody consider him a great player," said Team USA manager Joe Torre. "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 one thing I've always talked to my players about. You want to make people happy. You want to have people to respect you, but it's more important to respect each other. They are the only ones that know how tough it is do what they do, and it's not easy to accept defeat."
The question is whether those teams from other countries might have more motivation because of the high regard in which baseball is held in the United States.
"We were supreme underdogs against that USA lineup," said right-hander Nelson Figueroa, who with a fastball that hit 88 mph only once was able to weave his way through six scoreless innings to claim the elimination victory. "That's an example that in baseball you cannot play the game on paper."
It is also an example of just how intent Puerto Rico was to advance in the Classic.
With Team USA rallying in the bottom of the eighth, Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez hailed Fernando Cabrera out of the bullpen. Same Cabrera who was supposed to be the starting pitcher on Saturday. But with the win on the line, Rodriguez shuffled the deck, used Cabrera out of the bullpen and after the game announced Orlando Roman will start on Saturday instead.
And it's an example that from a Team USA perspective, the timing of the Classic, in the midst of Spring Training, is a challenge. While most of the Latin players are coming off playing winter ball in their native countries, and the Japanese players take part in year-round conditioning, established American big leaguers have just begun to tune up their baseball playing skills. It adds to the pressures on Torre to be careful with how he uses players, particularly pitchers, or risk the ire of a general manager.
It, however, doesn't make failure acceptable.
"Is it a disappointment?" asked Phillips. "Yes, it is. I knew we were going to make it to San Francisco. Everybody dreams of being a winner. And for us not to get there, it stinks a little bit. ... It's tough. You come to play in the WBC, you're not really ready, you're still in Spring Training mode, but you've got to click it on [to] try to win and represent the country."
Better luck next time.
And Phillips is hoping he gets to be a part of Team USA in the Classic the next time.
"This is a dream come true, being a bat boy [as a child] and then playing in this," said Phillips. "It's a goal I can check off on my list. This was so much fun. I mean, it stinks losing, but somebody has got to lose."
Team USA was that somebody on Friday.
The players can only wonder what could have been.
Team USA lost starting first baseman Mark Teixeira when he suffered a strained tendon in his right wrist before the first Classic game was played. Teixeira was replaced by Kansas City first baseman Eric Hosmer, who went 5-for-25, including grounding out to leave the bases loaded after Team USA scored twice to cut the deficit to 4-3 in the eighth inning Friday.
And prior to Thursday's game, David Wright, who had the Americans' only Classic home run and drove in 10 of the 28 runs they scored, was pulled out of the lineup at the request of the New York Mets because of a strain on the left side of his rib cage.
Team USA scored only four runs and managed only 14 hits -- 12 of which were singles -- in the final two games.
"There's no excuses," said Ryan Braun. "There's no rhyme nor reason for it. The expectation for all of us was to get to San Francisco [for the semifinals and championship game] and ultimately to win in San Francisco. ... At the same time we recognized that it was going to be a challenge, and clearly it was."
It was more of a challenge than Team USA could handle.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.