Americans have done a great job growing the World Baseball Classic.
They’ve done a poor job winning it.
At a time when global interest in the tournament is at a high — as evidenced by astronomical television ratings in Japan and a loud majority of Mexican fans at Chase Field on Friday night — Team USA remains stagnant, bafflingly ill-equipped and underprepared for the international style of play.
R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball didn’t knuckle, Eduardo Arredondo rapped the game’s first pitch onto the outfield grass, Team Mexico had a two-run lead before the first commercial break, and the Americans never sniffed a lead — to the delight of most among the boisterous crowd of 44,256.
At the moment Sergio Romo retired Jimmy Rollins for the final out of Mexico’s 5-2 win, the Americans dropped to 7-8 all-time in WBC play.
Shocking, isn’t it?
“It is what it is,” Rollins said. “I wouldn’t say ‘shocking.’ But that’s where we sit right now. We’re just trying to rewrite that.”
If Team USA were out to craft the most dramatic narrative possible it’s off to a smashing start.
If Mexico defeats Canada in Saturday’s early game, which is likely, then the Americans will face elimination when they encounter the charming (and unbeaten) Italians at 7 p.m. local time.
Both Rollins and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig acknowledged Friday that domestic fan interest in the WBC is linked to the U.S. winning it. Well, what if Team USA fails to reach the second round in Miami?
The doomsday scenario — which seemed absurd 24 hours ago — could come to pass … before Daylight Savings Time begins Sunday morning.
“I love to be out front, but if we have to be (in this position), I enjoy it,” Rollins said.
“I think you concentrate more. You go harder at it. You find a way to dig down deep and let your talent shine through. You have nothing to lose at that point.”
Maybe the Americans’ predicament is what they need to bring out the urgency they lacked in Friday’s opener. They watched their opponents execute flawlessly: Luis Cruz supplied two sacrifice flies; Ramiro Peña beat out a double-play ball before Adrian Gonzalez’s two-run homer; Arredondo chased down would-be extra-base hits in center field.
But when it came time to move a runner, or punch a single through the infield, Team USA couldn’t do it.
It was that way at the 2006 WBC. It was that way at the 2009 WBC. It is that way — so far, at least — in the 2013 WBC.
With four years to prepare, a country that can pull from roughly 70 percent of active major leaguers chose, again, a team that is overly reliant on home runs. (Of note, they didn’t hit one Friday.)
Even if the Americans win their next two games, they could find themselves in a three-way tie with Italy and Mexico for Pool D’s two second-round bids — at which point run differential in games among the three teams would be the tiebreaker.
Rollins sounded confident — “If we win the next two days, we’re advancing,” he said — but it’s not quite that easy. The Americans must beat Italy by at least three runs if they wish to exhale Saturday night.
“We plan on putting up some runs,” Rollins said. “We’ve got a lineup to do it. There were a couple balls tonight — Giancarlo (Stanton) just missed a couple, Braunie (Ryan Braun) early. It just wasn’t quite there, but that’s all part of the game. Tomorrow (Saturday), I’m sure we’ll come out with better timing, knowing we have to put up runs. We’ll find a way to get it done.”
Their opponent: Luca Panerati, a 23-year-old left-hander from Grossetto, Italy, who spent four seasons in the Cincinnati farm system before being released. He’s pitching for Bologna now in Italy’s domestic league.
The Americans should be able to win. Then again, that’s what we’ve been saying about Team USA in this tournament since 2006. And we’ve been wrong about that more times than we’ve been right.