USA not taking anything for granted
This time, Johnson and his crew aren't taking Classic lightly
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Two hours before Thursday's first pitch, Team USA manager Davey Johnson stood in the dugout in idle conversation with an old friend, but it was obvious his mind was someplace else.
"There are a lot of days off in this format," Johnson said, frowning. "At this stage of the spring, we need consistency."
In other words, it's very difficult to go to war with just a few at-bats and only a handful of warmup pitches -- then have to be idle for a day just when the action picks up steam.
Johnson didn't seem overly concerned before the tuneup against the Phillies, but knowing him as well as I do, he was mentally sorting out the final preparations for the World Baseball Classic.
Five hours later, his mood was different.
Four home runs and a stirring 9-6 variable rout of the defending World Series champions does wonders for morale. The game wasn't as close as the score.
And just to seal the exhibition watched by 6,246 customers at Bright House Field on a magnificent afternoon, Adam Dunn crushed a three-run homer in the fifth inning that rattled dishes in Safety Harbor.
In all, Chipper Jones, Ryan Braun, Brian McCann and Dunn blasted home runs in the 10-hit attack.
"My biggest concern is, I think everybody knows how I want to play them, and they can prepare for that role mentally," Johnson said after the game. "We've got some paybacks to do from three years ago. Everybody is fired up to go. We're glad to get on that plane for Toronto.
"Me? I'd rather be here a couple more days. I'm concerned a little about some of our pitching. Some of the guys haven't been as sharp as we thought they should be. We've given up more runs [17 in three games] than I'd like. I think it's just a matter of getting the work in."
Team USA, with two victories in three exhibitions under its belt, jetted off to Toronto before sunset on the Gulf Coast, ready to take on the world. The USA works out at Rogers Centre on Friday morning, then faces Canada in its first game at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday.
The USA was so ill-prepared in the first tournament, which was won by Japan in 2006, it was eliminated before making the semifinals.
So the motto this time around as been all about redemption and preparation -- not necessarily in that order.
"Today was really good," Johnson said. "We've got some guys who haven't been swinging the bat like they can. Today was better. Everybody looked a lot more relaxed and loose. The relievers, who had pitched just one day, were more settled.
"Power arms and power hitters -- it's hard for them to get going early in the spring, so this was big for them today. Of course, Chipper Jones seems like he can fall out of bed and hit."
Jones said before the first game of the 2006 Classic, "I had just four at-bats off live pitching. I've already had 20 now, and I'm a little more comfortable. Obviously, it's going to help all the guys. With all the boppers we had then, nobody expected them to go out and hit a bunch of home runs in mid-March. A bopper's swing is something that takes a while to come around.
"Speed doesn't go in a slump, and that's what we have here. That's the difference. We've got some guys who can chop the ball on the ground, steal bases and manufacture runs."
"We're not really a home run-hitting ball club," Johnson said. "We've got some guys who can juice the ball, but I think our big thing is, we have a lot of guys who can put the ball in play. Part of the problem the last time  was we had more power and that takes a long time to get ready. Three years ago, we didn't bat well at all; we had trouble scoring runs."
Jones, a member of the '06 USA team, believes having players from the first team here this year is a huge plus.
"We can give guys an idea of what to expect," Jones said. "In '06, we didn't have any of that. We just thought we were going to throw gloves and bats out on the field and win ballgames. It didn't happen."
USA captain Derek Jeter and Jones believe being on this team is something that grows on the players.
"It's a lot of fun and you realize that," said Jones. "I said before, the best baseball experience of my career was 2006, even though we got far. But being able to learn from some of the best players in the game, share a clubhouse and get to know them on a personal level. It's the same way this time."
Teammates joke about the Phillies' Shane Victorino, calling him Hawaii Five-O.
"I wasn't here the last time, but I think this team's hungry, especially in the energy level." said Victorino, who's wearing No. 50 in honor of his home state, Hawaii. "We're very anxious. We're all excited to get there tonight and prepare for what's ahead of us."
As the USA players, nattily attired in dress clothes, headed for the bus which would take them to their late-afternoon charter, there was an air of confidence.
There was no grousing about leaving Spring Training for this tournament and other comments I heard three years ago.
I get the feeling this is a team with a mission.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.