The Olympics come once every two years, but for baseball fans, their equivalent of the Games is happening right now.
The United States will begin their quest for the World Baseball Classic championship tonight as they take on Mexico at Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, in Phoenix.
Expect a fairly crowded ballpark when these neighboring countries clash. The stakes of this game have gotten even higher for Mexico, who surprisingly lost to Italy 6-5 yesterday thanks in large part to a dropped fly ball that scored the tying and go-ahead runs for Italy in the top of the ninth. Another loss and Mexico will be in serious trouble.
Even before that debacle, however, Mexico made an important decision: to save their best pitcher for the United States. Starting the game against Italy for the Mexican team was Rodrigo Lopez, the journeyman MLB hurler with a career ERA of 4.82.
In turn, the Mexicans have kept team ace Yovani Gallardo of the Milwaukee Brewers for the Americans. Gallardo is 69-43 in his big league career including a 16-9 mark for the Brew Crew last season.
The United States will counter with reigning NL Cy Young winner and new Blue Jay knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. For his part, Dickey seems confident going into the contest, telling the media after a recent team workout, "I think if I'm throwing 65 pitches and can execute 60 good knuckleballs, then we're probably going to be in a good position."
Being in Pool D, the United States will play Mexico on Friday before facing Italy on Saturday and finally Canada on Sunday. Two of the four teams will advance and take on the winners of Pool C from the Puerto Rico bracket in Miami.
The championship round will then be held in San Francisco, which is the home of the World Series champion Giants.
Several teams have solid MLB talent. Miguel Cabrera and Pablo Sandoval play for Venezuela, Robinson Cano and Jose Reyes are on the Dominican squad, Justin Morneau suits up for Canada, and up-and-comer Anthony Rizzo is on Team Italy, to name just a few.
Then there is the United States squad. Many are saying this is the best roster they've assembled and are hoping that the third time is the charm in the third-ever World Baseball Classic. The outfield seems to be the biggest plus for the red, white and blue, with a trio of stars in Ryan Braun, Adam Jones, and Giancarlo Stanton chasing down the fly balls.
In addition, they have their fair share of high-end talent elsewhere with others including Joe Mauer, David Wright, Brandon Phillips, Dickey, Craig Kimbrel, and Gio Gonzalez.
With so many pluses in so many areas, how could you not like your chances? According to a Sporting News report, Orioles legend Cal Ripken feels quite good about this assembly:
“I’m predicting them to win the whole thing. I think Team USA believes they have something to prove. They’re going to be playing with an extra chip on their shoulder because they haven’t won the first two World Baseball Classics.”
Such words might put pressure on the Yanks (not the New York team, the American one) to win the gold. But that pressure comes with the territory of playing in front of your home crowd throughout the tournament and trying to reach the championship for the first time.
In the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, the United States had an upset of eventual champion Japan when Alex Rodriguez had a walk-off hit. The other main highlight included a 17-0 drubbing of South Africa before losing to South Korea and Mexico in the second round to get eliminated.
The 2009 World Baseball Classic saw the United States notch another dramatic walk-off, this time courtesy of David Wright to get them to the semifinals, but they lost there to eventual champion Japan.
Japan is the two-time winner of the tournament, yet fans might be feeling like the United States has a better shot of knocking them off this year for who Japan has lost from their previous teams. Gone for the first time is Ichiro Suzuki, the face of the Japanese team.
Had he played now at age 39 he may have slowed up a bit and his hitting greatness may not be quite the same, but just psychologically speaking, having him in the lineup would've helped a great deal.
Also gone is two-time World Baseball Classic MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka. Matsuzaka's masterful performance in the 2006 tournament is what gained the attention of so many MLB clubs and eventually landed him on the Red Sox.
After injury problems and a drop in his stuff, Matsuzaka now finds himself at the Cleveland Indians spring camp on a minor league deal and on the outside looking in of the World Baseball Classic.
For these reasons and the fact that Yu Darvish is no longer on the Japanese pitching staff as he was in 2009, the USA can feel good. They just have to be careful not to overlook the fact that the Japanese will still be a talented, disciplined team and that in a short tournament anything can happen.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands just knocked off Cuba last night 6-2 in an upset and Italy beating Mexico can be considered an upset too. March Madness is starting a little early and it has nothing to do with basketball.
All the World Baseball Classic games will be televised on the MLB Network, which may make it hard to watch for many fans who do not have that channel.
Nonetheless, the World Baseball Classic is a special time, an event like no other that the MLB obviously hopes Americans will continue to become more and more passionate about.
United States manager Joe Torre realizes the importance of the event. When it was announced that he would be the skipper back last June, he commented to the Associated Press, "I have been fortunate to have many different experiences throughout my career, but being a part of Team USA will be a first, and I am very excited about it."
It is a magical time where Yankees and Red Sox fans can come together, Dodgers and Giants fans can be at peace, and the White Sox and Cubs faithful can end the Civil War as fans of all teams unify to cheer for their nation.
Together, they sit in quiet hope that this may be the year the USA goes all the way. And with the way things look, there is no reason why that can't happen.