USA leads competitive Pool C bracket
Group to feature tournament contenders in America, Venezuela
It is widely considered the most competitive opening bracket in this year's World Baseball Classic.
And it isn't difficult to see why.
With the United States and Venezuela, Pool C boasts two teams few would be surprised to see win it all. Both are chock-full of Major League All-Stars, and with teams working out earlier this spring, both feel more adequately prepared for international competition this time around.
The only question is this: Will it be a two-horse race, or will somebody else challenge these two giants for one of the top two spots in the pool and an invitation to the second round?
The Canadians don't have the amount of depth or talent as the other two, but they do have some of their own. And the fact all of the first-round games will be played at Rogers Centre in Toronto won't hurt their chances either.
Italy is slim on the Major League-talent front. But the Italians are banking on their opponents not knowing much about the pitchers they're facing, and the surprise element that comes with playing baseball in a short tournament.
Besides, when it's double elimination -- in which one slip-up can ruin the chances of even the best of teams -- anything can happen.
Isn't that what makes it most exciting?
They may not be calling themselves the "Redeem Team" -- coined for the USA basketball team that went into the 2008 Summer Olympics looking to take back the gold medal -- but Team USA believes it has a lot to improve upon from the '06 Classic.
The U.S. suffered a surprising loss to Canada early on, then dropped back-to-back games to Korea and Mexico and left the tournament after the second round.
Manager Davey Johnson -- who served as bench coach that year -- believes the U.S. wasn't adequately prepared for international competition in '06. But an earlier start to Spring Training this year might help that cause, and so can the squad's perceived new mentality.
Veterans like Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter and Jake Peavy are back. And they're surrounded by an array of young stars, like David Wright, Jimmy Rollins, Dustin Pedroia and Ryan Braun.
Just like in '06, Team USA's lineup and starting staff can compete with anybody's -- on paper. But general manager Bob Watson didn't want to just throw a bunch of All-Stars together. He made sure he also got role players, like Shane Victorino and Mark DeRosa, as well as several short-inning relievers.
The U.S. did lose out on some quality back-end relievers, however, when Joe Nathan, B.J. Ryan and Brian Fuentes -- who could return for the second round -- dropped out. For now, the team has not named a set closer, but it has several who will work the ninth inning for their respective Major League teams this season.
All in all, Johnson -- who proclaimed Team USA as the "team to beat" before exhibition games even began -- likes his squad going in.
"We have a fine ballclub, and I think one of the reasons we had problems three years ago is we didn't have the preparation, the mindset going in," he said. "I like my team as good as any of the other teams we're going to go up against."
After an 8-4 loss to the Braves in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on Thursday, Venezuela manager Luis Sojo talked about how the bats let his team down in the '06 Classic -- when his team went 1-2 in the second round and missed out on the semifinals.
This year, pitching could be Venezuela's downfall.
Offensively, the Venezuelans pack a mighty punch with stars like Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, Bobby Abreu, Melvin Mora and Carlos Guillen. The ninth inning should be in good hands, too, with star closer Francisco Rodriguez coming off a 62-save season.
But who will get the ball before K-Rod?
Venezuela lost two top-notch, front-line starting pitchers when Johan Santana and Carlos Zambrano skipped out on the Classic.
With them, the Venezuelans stood a good chance at winning it all.
Without them, things could get tricky in a tough Pool C.
"You're not going to replace [Santana and Zambrano]," Sojo said. "But they're not here, so I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about what I've got right now.
"We just have to keep going, concentrate on what we're supposed to do, and we'll be all right."
Carlos Silva, Felix Hernandez -- both of whom will pitch in the opener against Italy on Saturday -- and Armando Galarraga have their share of big-league experience. But it doesn't run much deeper on the pitching staff after that.
Still, Sojo has a combined 20 All-Star appearances within his projected starting lineup. And that's enough to inspire confidence in Venezuela's skipper.
"I feel great," he said. "Compared to 2006, the guys are in better shape, and they're ready. Hitting-wise, that was our problem in 2006. But we look forward to doing a better job.
"The attitude is going to change for Saturday."
Hockey has always been the dominant sport in Canada.
But at least for a while, baseball will jump to the forefront.
Arguably the best ballplayer to come out of Canada, Larry Walker has retired and is now a coach with the team. But Canada's newest stars, Red Sox outfielder Jason Bay and Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, are certainly capable of filling his shoes.
Going into the exhibition games, Bay talked about the surprising win against the U.S. being a bright spot for Canada, even though the team couldn't get out of the first round.
But this year can yield an early exit once again.
The Canadians boast Bay, Russell Martin, Morneau, Joey Votto and Matt Stairs. But the pitching well doesn't run very deep, as just four of their hurlers have even pitched in a big league game.
Still, anything can happen in a short tournament like the Classic. And manager Ernie Whitt is just fine with the U.S. and Venezuela getting all the pub going into the first round.
"Let them get all the press they want -- that's fine with us," said Whitt, who spent 12 years as a catcher for the Blue Jays, up until 1989. "I know the type of players that we have in this clubhouse, the staff that we put together. I'm very confident in the team that we have. We will compete."
Competing is not going to be easy for the Italians, as just 10 of the 28 players on Team Italy's roster have any big league experience.
The squad will count on Frank Catalanotto, Nick Punto and Jason Grilli to be their go-to guys, and the rest of the players will be mostly low-level prospects.
But manager Nick Mallett -- a very accomplished international coach -- believes his team will have an advantage because of his pitchers' anonymity.
"It's not easy," he said. "When you face a pitcher, especially the guys we have, [the opposing team] won't have a scouting report. It's not so easy to hit a baseball, even though it's a different level. If the guy throws strikes, and you don't know him -- especially when it's going to be one time around the lineup -- it's going to be tough."
Already slim on Major League talent, Italy -- 1-2 in '06 -- was dealt a major blow when Angels catcher Mike Napoli bowed out of the Classic. But the best part about this time of the tournament is the fact that everyone in Pool C is 0-0.
With that in mind, hope floats everywhere.
"You have a couple of good games pitched, you get a big hit here or there, and the next thing you know, you're beating up on some good teams," Catalanotto said. "We're hoping to be the spoiler."
Alden Gonzalez is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.