We might as well initiate the upset alert a week early, just so it doesn’t catch us by surprise.
Team USA is supposed to go 3-0 in pool play to start the World Baseball Classic, but the Americans will face their toughest test right away — next Friday, March 8, against Mexico at Chase Field in Phoenix.
Milwaukee Brewers All-Star Yovani Gallardo — who finished seventh in National League Cy Young Award voting two seasons ago — is on track to pitch for Mexico. While nothing has been announced, Gallardo will make his next spring start for the Brewers on Sunday. That would put him on regular rest for March 8.
Gallardo, who was born in Mexico but attended high school in Texas, is coming off four consecutive seasons with 200 or more strikeouts. And he’s never lost at Chase Field: 4-0 with a 1.48 ERA in four starts.
R.A. Dickey is lined up to pitch for the U.S. — again, when projecting based on his spring schedule. The knuckleballer will have an easier assignment than Gallardo. Even though the U.S. is missing a number of big-name players, the American lineup is stacked with All-Stars. Mexico has one recent All-Star position player, Adrian Gonzalez, and one other big-league regular, Dodgers third baseman Luis Cruz.
So, Gonzalez will have minimal lineup protection. Of course, that hardly affected him when he posted a 36-homer, 119-RBI season for the last-place Padres in 2008.
(Obvious question: Should USA manager Joe Torre ensure that Gonzalez sees nothing to hit the entire game by pitching around him from the very beginning?)
While the game isn’t sold out at this point, the U.S.-Mexico matchup should draw a boisterous crowd — and not necessarily a friendly one for the Americans. In fact, it won’t be a surprise if the attendance is split roughly 50-50 between American and Mexican fans, because of the Valley’s large Mexican-American population.
Consider: When the U.S. and Mexico soccer teams played a friendly at University of Phoenix Stadium in nearby Glendale, Ariz., six years ago, the announced attendance was 62,462. Of the atmosphere that night, the veteran soccer reporter Ives Galarcep wrote: “There were American fans in attendance, proudly sporting their stars and stripes and Uncle Sam hats, but they were simply freckles in a canvas of green, outnumbered nearly four to one.”
To the extent that history gives us an indication of what to expect, the U.S. has split its only two WBC meetings with Mexico, both in 2006. In fact, Mexico eliminated USA from that tournament by a 2-1 score at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. The Americans managed only three hits — none after the fifth inning — despite a pitching matchup that seemed to favor them: Roger Clemens vs. Oliver Perez. (That was supposedly the last game of Clemens’ career. We should have known better.)
It’s important to note that a loss to Mexico next week wouldn’t necessarily ruin American hopes of reaching the WBC championship game for the first time. Two teams will move on from Pool D, so the U.S. would have to lose to Mexico and Canada or Italy to be sent home after the first weekend. That is 16th-seed-in-the-Sweet-Sixteen unlikely.
• My hunch — and it is only that — for Mexico’s rotation: Luis Mendoza (Royals) vs. Italy, Gallardo vs. the U.S., and Marco Estrada (Brewers) vs. Canada. Team Mexico manager Rick Renteria has two more options to start, in Philadelphia’s Rodrigo Lopez and Boston’s Alfredo Aceves.
Mendoza has been an underrated contributor in Kansas City, going 8-10 with a 4.23 ERA in 166 innings last year. He’s known for keeping the ball on the ground, which will be crucial in the thin air. Mendoza received MVP honors for this winter’s Caribbean Series with 13-1/3 scoreless innings, so he’s earned the right to start the opener. Estrada, meanwhile, is coming off a career year with Milwaukee: 5-7 with a 3.64 ERA in 138.1 innings, not to mention a 4.93 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Also of note, Mexico’s bullpen includes two certifiable late-inning arms in Sergio Romo and David Hernandez, along with lefties Perez and Cesar Ramos. This should be one of the best pitching staffs in the tournament.
• If Team USA gives each of its starters an extra day of rest before the tournament begins, the rotation looks like Dickey vs. Mexico, Ross Detwiler vs. Italy and Ryan Vogelsong vs. Canada. (Gio Gonzalez isn’t expected to pitch until the second round.)
Rangers left-hander Derek Holland is on the USA roster, as well, although it’s not clear if he will draw a starting assignment in the first round. He made a case for himself with four shutout innings Thursday against Cleveland, hinting that the Holland we saw in the 2011 World Series has returned from last year’s sabbatical.
• Since I know you’re wondering, here’s a refresher on the WBC pitch limits: 65 in the first round, 80 in the second round, 95 in the championship round.
• Poor Canada. Russell Martin has decided not to play after all, after his request to play shortstop was met with quizzical looks. And now Joey Votto’s status remains very much in limbo. Votto, who endured an injury-plagued second half last season, plans to wait until the very last moment to decide whether he will join Team Canada.
If the Canadians are without Martin and Votto, their lineup won’t be much better than Mexico’s. Already, their rotation isn’t close to being on par with the U.S. or Mexico.
While Canada’s starters for pool play haven’t been announced, the Canadian Press reported they will be Chris Leroux, Shawn Hill and Scott Mathieson. Leroux pitched exclusively as a reliever in the majors last season; he did make seven starts for Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate. Hill has made 44 career starts in the big leagues but none since 2010. Mathieson excelled as a reliever with the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Central League last year; his most recent starting experience was with the Phillies’ Triple-A club in 2011.
Without a frontline major-league starter, Canada is considering whether to “piggyback” pitchers during the first round — effectively using two starters in each game. In that scenario, Jameson Taillon, Mark Hardy and Andrew Albers could be used with Leroux, Hill and Mathieson in a six-starter matrix.
Taillon, a Pirates prospect, is perhaps the most intriguing starting pitcher on the roster, but he hasn’t pitched above Double-A. Both Hardy and Albers are left-handed. Hardy had a 4.71 ERA among four Padres affiliates last year; Albers went 4-3 with a 3.75 ERA last season in 98-1/3 innings at Double-A New Britain in the Minnesota organization.