Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Baseball's March Madness

Watching the USA-Canada tussle in the World Baseball Classic on Saturday, it felt great to enjoy a gut-wrenching 9th inning in early March. What better way to dive head-first into a new baseball season than to pace the floor as closer J. J. Putz struggled (and I do mean struggled) to preserve a two-run lead against the Canadians in front of a nearly full stadium in Toronto. Putz surrendered one run but held on to retire Jason Bay and nail down a 6-5 victory that prevented the American team from reliving the shocking comeuppance they got from the Canadian team in the inaugural WBC in 2006.

Nor was that the only exciting moment of the tournament's first round. Far from it. Earlier that day came a jolting upset by the Netherlands over a star-studded Dominican Republic squad that put a ton of runners on base but couldn't get them across the plate. Mets fans can tell you why the Dominicans lost: they benched Jose Reyes in favor of Hanley Ramirez at shortstop, and Ramirez's ghastly throwing error in the top of the 1st inning helped the Netherlands take a 3-0 lead which they never relinquished. DR manager Felipe Alou nearly had a stroke in the bottom of the 9th when, trailing 3-2, speedster Willy Taveras tried to steal third base with one out and got nailed, effectively killing their only chance to tie the game. Earlier, the Netherlands had brought in a relief pitcher nobody in this country will ever likely hear of again, with the bases loaded, and he promptly threw a double-play ball to kill a DR rally. But maybe the Dutch team is for real. Yesterday they held Puerto Rico scoreless for seven innings and were poised for another upset, leading 1-0 until Puerto Rico scored three runs in the 8th inning to win. Now the Dutch will have to beat the Dominican Republic again to advance. Don't tell them they can't do it.

In the USA's second game of the tournament, they faced a Venezuela team that also has its share of major leaguers and had trounced Italy 7-0 in its opening game. No problem. Again, Mets fans can tell you what happened here. Trailing 3-2 heading into the 5th inning, the Americans looked up to the sight of Victor Zambrano toeing the rubber for the Venezuelans. Although Mets fans cringe at the very thought of Victor "The Wrong" Zambrano, the wild-armed bustout for whom a general manager whose name I can't even bring myself to type traded prized prospect Scott Kazmir, at least this time he had a chance to help the team we were rooting for. Zambrano got through the 5th inning unscathed, but fell apart in the 6th. Two hits, two walks and a wild pitch later, he gave us that familiar head-down trudge to the dugout, and the USA team was in business. Before the inning ended, it was an 8-run rally and a 10-3 lead that opened the door to a 15-6 rout. Thank you, finally, Victor, for giving me a performance I could cheer.

As its reward, Venezuela will get to play Italy again, thanks to the Italians' stirring 6-2 win over the Canadians yesterday. The "crowd" in Toronto looked meager (the official attendance was 12,411), and maybe the fans took the Italians lightly and were waiting to show up for a game against Venezuela, much like Atlanta Braves fans of the perennial division champs stayed away in droves from first-round playoff games, figuring the games weren't worth watching until the World Series, only to see the Braves flounder over and over again in the first round. All those fans who stayed away in droves deserved what they got, in this case a high-energy effort from the underdog Italians, who simply outplayed their hosts. Maybe batting coach Mike Piazza was masquerading for some of the unknowns in the Italian lineup, but they also played great defense and thoroughly earned their rematch with Venezuela.

With the USA team packed with power--you know it's a scary lineup when the last three guys in the batting order are Ryan Braun, Brian McCann, and Curtis Granderson, and you have to platoon Jimmy Rollins and Derek Jeter at shortstop--and Japan, Korea, and Cuba looking strong, this could be quite a tournament. There are more great games ahead, and the teams seem to be taking this competition more seriously than they did in 2006 (that is, the Americans are). That first time around, some people thought of the games as exhibitions. It was March, after all, a time for leisurely preparation for the long season ahead. This time, it is definitely a competition, and for fans like me who have endured a long, harsh winter, it is never too early to see teams battling for every base and every out, and never too early to feel the anxiety of every pitch as my team tries to grab that next vital victory. So bring on the Cubans and the Japanese!

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