If recent history tells us anything, Manager Joe Torre better have his United States squad fully prepared for a battle when they take the field for their first game of the 2013 World Baseball Classic Friday night at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona.
It may seem that on paper, Team USA would be the logical front-runner in Pool D of the round-robin format, as they sit in a bracket with Canada, Italy, and Mexico. The top two teams will advance to the second round, after each team plays one another. In each of the previous two WBC events in 2006 and 2009, the Americans have at least advanced past the first round.
Talent-wise, Team USA has the firepower to go deep in this event. But, international baseball tournaments don’t always shake out the way that you think they should, even when the greatest players in the world are on the field.
As history has shown us, Team USA should never take Mexico or Canada lightly. Tracing back only 14 years to the beginning of the time (1999) when USA Baseball began utilizing professional players in major international competition, and collaborating with Major League Baseball on the player selection process, it has arguably been Mexico and Canada that have given the Americans the most trouble.
There’s no doubt that Mexico has become the biggest thorn in the side of Team USA. It started when the 1999 USA Pan Am Team got caught up in a dogfight with the Mexicans for one of two Olympic berths, at the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, Canada. In the do-or-die semifinal game that allowed the winner to advance to Sydney for the 2000 Olympics, Mexico pushed Team USA into extra innings in a 2-2 tie. When unheralded hero Mike Neill came up with a two-out, pinch hit run scoring single to put the Americans ahead, reliever Dan Wheeler shut the door on Mexico to secure the win, and send Team USA to the Olympics. The Americans went on to win a gold medal in Sydney, behind Tommy Lasorda, Roy Oswalt and Ben Sheets (as told in my book Miracle on Grass).
But four years later, Mexico exacted their revenge when they shocked Team USA at the 2003 Olympic Qualifying event in Panama City, Panama. In a quarterfinal matchup that allowed the winner to stay alive, and eliminated the losing team, American reliever Brian Bruney gave up a solo home run in the top of the ninth inning, of a 1-1 tie. With Team USA down to their last at-bat, they placed runners at first and third with only one out. But Justin Leone bounced back to the mound, and pinch-hitter Gerald Laird popped out to end the game, killing Team USA’s chances of defending their Olympic gold medal at the 2004 Games in Athens.
Then in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, it was Mexico again that knocked out Team USA. After the Americans had won the opening round contest between the two, Mexico pulled off the upset over Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and company, in a game started by Roger Clemens. Team USA was stymied with the bats all night, and lost 2-1 in a game they had to win, in order to get to the finals in San Diego. Instead, Japan advanced, and ended up winning the entire thing.
The Canadians have given Team USA all that they could handle as well. At the 1999 Pan Am Games, it was Canada that shocked the Americans in the very first game, 7-6 in extra innings. Then in 2006 in the first round of the WBC, Canada pounded Team USA starter Dontrelle Willis for five runs on six hits in 2.2 innings, and held on to win 8-6. Even though the loss didn’t end up costing Team USA the chance to advance to the second round in Anaheim, it didn’t sit well with the team, and was the first sign that the Americans could be beat. All three teams – Mexico, Canada and the USA – ended up with 2-1 records in that opening round, but Canada lost the tiebreaker.
In the last five years, the games between these three countries have continued to be very tight. In the 2007 Pan Am Games Olympic Qualifier, Team USA had a tough time and barely snuck past Mexico in the semifinals, with a 2-1 victory. Then in the 2011 Pan Am Games, Mexico returned the favor once again and beat the Americans during pool play, 3-2. Canada then dispatched Mexico in the semifinals 5-3, while Team USA was upsetting Cuba in the other semifinal, 12-10. With the Americans looking to capture their first Pan Am Games gold medal in over 40 years, Canada shocked them in the final, dealing them a bitter 2-1 defeat.
So, as you can see, nothing can be taken for granted, when it comes to these three teams playing one another in international baseball events, with professional players. I don’t imagine the Americans having much trouble with Italy, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Torre and company dropped a game in Phoenix to either Mexico or Canada. Neither one of those two teams will be afraid of the USA. If they do lose a game, they’ll be in real danger of losing that tiebreaker to advance to Miami, and it could all be over in a flash for the Red, White and Blue.
David Fanucchi is the author of “Miracle on Grass” – How Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda led Team USA to a shocking upset over Cuba, capturing the only Olympic gold medal in USA Baseball history. He was the official Team USA Press Officer for both the 2000 USA Baseball Olympic Team and the 2006 USA World Baseball Classic Team. More information about Fanucchi and Miracle on Grass can be found on his website at www.davidfanucchi.com.