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03/08/2006 Archived Entry: "World Baseball Classic Exceeds Expectations"

World Baseball Classic Exceeds Expectations
by Craig Tomarkin

I was really looking forward to watching Venezuela vs DR yesterday and was not let down. To all the ney-sayers - you missed one helluva game! Both sides had virtual all-star teams, with DR touted as having better hitting and Ven having better pitching. It was a bright sunny day and with so many Venezuelan and DR fans crowding into to see the game, waving flags and chanting in Spanish, you wouldn't know the game was being played at Disney - or care. For a few hours I was transported from snow covered Connecticut to a summer baseball match-up between two Latin countries, who had just played each other in the Caribbean World Series (Ven won). And, this was the all-star rematch (and payback?).

Players on both sides were totally charged up, hi-fiving each other at every turn, pumping fists, trash talking, and feeding off of an exuberant crowd. When Big Papi Homered in the second inning to put DR on the board first, Pujols jumped over the dugout railing to congratulate him. You would NEVER see that at a spring training game! This is real baseball and with an exciting foreign flavor. Cowbells and air horns replaced monotonous organ patches, making for a much more festive and genuine celebration (rather than that induced, sleepy cheer you get during middle innings of a typical mlb game).

Despite great pitching, the hitters had their day. You had DR's big lead (6-1 in the 5th), followed by Venezuela’s dramatic come back (6-5 by the end of 7, and it would have been tied had Cabrera's double, which bounced off the back wall and then forward off the top of inner wall, been called a HR instead of a ground rule double. It would have been his 2nd HR, by the way). And then, DR put the game away with 5 runs in the ninth, with a major party ensuing.

For DR, even without Vlad and Manny their lineup was incredible: Soriano, Belliard, Tejada, Pujols, Big Papi (who hit 2 hrs), Alou, Beltre (who also hit 2 hrs and stole a base), Encarnacion (in place of Vlad), Castillo, and Taveras (need that slick CF glove). Without Pedro Martinez on the mound, all-star Colon stepped in and threw 3 scoreless innings to get the win.

For Ven, Cabrera had a huge day batting clean-up as a 22 year old, but Abreu's 0-4 in the third spot hurt. To beat a team like DR, they either have to have all cylinders firing or need to get a great pitching performance and neither happened. Santana was good as the starter, allowing 1 run in 3 and a third, but the Zambrano brothers allowed 5 in 5.

In the afternoon, we had the second game USA vs Mexico. I was equally pumped for this one, because this was likely the US's biggest challenge in this first round. Plus, I wanted to see the lineup and watch them play for the first time since October. I also wondered how A-Rod (NYA) and Varitek (BOS) would get along being on the same team, since they fought last year. It appears that wearing the letters "U.S.A." across your chest removes a lot of animosity. The announcers indicated that the players banded together as a team and were eager to impress.

Well, they did not impress. They eked out a 2-0 win over what appeared to be a completely overmatch team on paper. Lopez of Mexico, pitched an outstanding 4 innings allowing only 1 run against an all-star lineup. The US looked flat, and based on the unity and exuberance of the players in the early game, they would have been crushed by either Ven or DR. They will need to step it up. Unfortunately, they will not be tested against Canada or South Africa, so who knows how they will conjure up their game face and true identity.

The US team apears to be expecting to win rather than fighting to win. This may lead to trouble when they face better competition later. Their bats appear not to be ready. Luckily, they can rely on superb defense (perhaps the best fielding team ever assembled) and overpowering pitching. Peavy was terrific against Mexico. I feel for South Africa, which is excited to be in the Classic, but lost to Canada already, so they face elimination and will have to face Roger Clemens on Friday. When he sits down, the US will follow with a stream of nearly "lights-out" closers in succession through the seventh, when the mercy rule will likely end it early.

As good as the US is, I'm half way expecting them to pull a Bode Miller. My bet is on DR, especially if Vlad decides to end his bereavement in time to join the team in the last round. Although, I'm eager to see how Cuba plays, they may be a factor too. And, Venezuela will get their chance too. All of these teams appear more game ready than the Americans. So, watch as the drama unfolds. I'm expecting a wild ride to the finish!

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