03/06/09 9:29 AM ET
USA, Canada ready to get started
Americans to face first Classic test in Toronto on Saturday
By Alden Gonzalez / MLB.com
Now, it's finally time for Team USA to prove it.
The U.S., as well as the other three teams -- Italy, Venezuela and Puerto Rico -- will play at Rogers Centre in Toronto on Saturday, kicking off Pool C play in the second World Baseball Classic.
Let's just say Team USA is hoping it doesn't turn out anything like the inaugural one in 2006.
That year, the U.S. was loaded with All-Stars and future Hall of Famers, yet it dropped two straight games to Korea and Mexico and was ousted before being able to reach the semifinals.
"Basically, we just didn't play well enough," said Derek Jeter, one of four returning players for the U.S. "That's just the bottom line. Like I said, it's a short tournament. You have to play well right from the get-go. If you don't, then you're going home. I don't think you can get much more in-depth than that."
A potential early statement
If Team USA wants to prove it's a different team this year, Game 1 against Team Canada will be the perfect time to do it.
In '06, one of the biggest surprises of the Classic was Canada beating the U.S., 8-6. So if the Americans ever wanted to show they have a new-found respect for international competition and are more prepared going in, they'll get their chance early on -- with 40,000-plus Canadians rooting against them.
"I think we're going to hate it, so that's good," said Team USA relief pitcher J.P. Howell, whose squad will face Canada at 2 p.m. ET. "It's nothing new for us. We're just going to go to Toronto, it's going to be sold out -- all Canadian -- so it's going to be intense."
The Classic will be in a double-elimination format for the first two rounds this time, with the top two finishers in Pool C meeting the top two finishers in Pool D in the second round at Dolphin Stadium in Miami.
The top two from Pool A will meet the top two from Pool B at San Diego's PETCO Park, and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles will host the semifinals and finals beginning March 21.
Rounding out the roster
Returning for Team USA will be Jeter, Chipper Jones, Scot Shields and Jake Peavy. And taking the place of legends like Ken Griffey Jr., Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez will be young stars like David Wright, Dustin Pedroia and Ryan Braun.
Going into Team USA's final exhibition game against the Phillies in Clearwater, Fla., on Thursday -- a 9-6 win -- manager Davey Johnson had pretty much his entire starting lineup and rotation figured out.
But there's one quandary that still has the 66-year-old skipper scratching his head.
That would be the shortstop position, where Jeter and Rollins both add marquee value. One is an offseason removed from a World Series championship, two years away from a Most Valuable Player Award and can fill a need at the leadoff spot. The other has four rings, is a nine-time All-Star and has already been proclaimed Team USA's captain by Johnson.
"I'd like to play them both every day," said Johnson, who has stated that he'll likely alternate them game by game. "But last time I checked, they don't have an extra shortstop on the field. Maybe we'll go back to softball and have them both play [shortstop].
"It's not a good problem to have. I know 28 coaches who'd like to have either one of them in there, but I don't know any coaches that would like to have both of them."
In regard to the rest of the lineup, Brian McCann will catch, David Wright will play third base -- with Chipper Jones serving as the designated hitter most of the time -- Pedroia will play second base, and Red Sox teammate Kevin Youkilis will man first base.
The outfield will consist of Braun, Curtis Granderson or Shane Victorino, and Adam Dunn, from left to right field, and the starting rotation will sport Peavy - Saturday's starter -- Roy Oswalt, Jeremy Guthrie and Ted Lilly.
General manager Bob Watson made sure this year's group wasn't just a collection of stars. He wanted his share of role players, too, so off the bench, Mark DeRosa -- who has registered more than 100 Major League games at four different positions -- will join Shane Victorino, or Granderson, and Chris Iannetta, as well as the non-starter between Jeter and Rollins.
"When putting this together this time, I wanted to take that approach to put it together not so much as we did before with an All-Star team, but to be a functional team," Watson said. "We're playing this to win. It's not an exhibition."
The bullpen situation is unclear -- but that's by design.
Johnson will have 11 relievers, most of whom are one-inning pitchers, and with a 70-pitch limit for the first round and restrictions from his hurlers' respective big league managers, Johnson is going to separate the bullpen into two groups.
No set closer has been named, no roles have been assigned, and pretty much anybody can come in at any time.
"We've got three or four options [at closer]," said pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, referring to the likes of Jonathan Broxton, Matt Lindstrom, J.J. Putz and Brad Ziegler. "We're still trying to feel it out. They're all capable. It's all a question of who's farther along."
Is the U.S. up for it?
But the biggest question is whether Team USA, as a whole, is farther along than three years ago.
While that will be decided beginning Saturday, their actions show they may be more close-knit.
Examples: On the very first day of practice, 13 players put their chairs in a circle and had a round-table discussion; energy guys like Pedroia, Youkilis and Victorino have been added, giving the clubhouse a looser vibe; and over the last couple of days, the entire team has done synchronized jumping jacks before huddling up together -- looking more like a high-school team than a last-minute collection of some of the best players in the world.
Going into the tournament, Japan is the defending champion, and Pool C looks to be the toughest bracket in the Classic.
But Team USA believes it's as good as it gets.
"The first time was almost like an All-Star Game -- some of the best players [were] together," Rollins said. "But then it was like, 'Whoa, we have to win, too.' This time, we know what's at stake, what's on the line."
And what exactly is at stake?
"Pride," he added. "Hearing that anthem."
Alden Gonzalez is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.