U.S. Hopes It Won't Get Caught Short

Times Staff Writer

Eventually, the inaugural World Baseball Classic will become less about the politics, less about the organizers, and more about the baseball.

And while they're not there yet -- games being played in Asia barely registered in Asia, let alone here -- Team USA found its way Friday morning to Chase Field, where the players found their starred-and-striped uniforms, posed for some pictures and got to it.

They open tournament play Tuesday against Mexico, after Sunday's exhibition game against the San Francisco Giants, which Roger Clemens will start. Jake Peavy will start against Mexico, Dontrelle Willis has game two against Canada and Clemens has game three against South Africa, the latter allowing U.S. Manager Buck Martinez to admit, "I like that matchup."

Clemens, who is semi-retired again, said that neither his preparation for the tournament nor his personal performance in it would determine his future.

"It's not going to figure into my decision at all," Clemens said. He then called his return to the game, either to the Houston Astros or otherwise, "a longshot."

The U.S. roster isn't exactly what Martinez had planned. Barry Bonds and Tim Hudson fell out early and pitchers C.C. Sabathia and Billy Wagner dropped out late, and already there's a fear Martinez could be caught a pitcher or two short if there were injuries.

Teams may replace injured players with healthy ones from their 60-man provisional rosters between rounds. But the U.S. -- out of negligence or arrogance -- submitted only 52 names, leaving few alternatives if it loses a starter or two to fatigue or worse.

"Now we probably would like to have a few more," Martinez said. "It's a lesson learned."

The American major league players gathered as Team USA for the first time the night before at a local hotel, where they watched a short video on the U.S. triumph in the 2000 Olympics -- Pat Borders getting rolled at the plate, Doug Mientkiewicz hitting a home run, Ben Sheets winning the gold-medal game and, Martinez said, "Lasorda doing his Lasorda thing."

The coaches, Reggie Smith among them, addressed the team again Friday morning, the message holding to the same theme. Said Martinez: "This is not an exhibition. This is a championship tournament."

The players appeared dutifully inspired, and so started the process of becoming a team in four days. Mid-morning, as they walked together toward the bullpen, Boston catcher Jason Varitek turned to Houston right-hander Brad Lidge and said, "Fastball, sinker, slider, right?" Lidge nodded.

Martinez said he would vary the starting lineup and batting order almost every game and promised that every position player would start at least once. Texas Ranger shortstop Michael Young has agreed to play some second base, New York Yankee center fielder Johnny Damon will play left field and Yankee teammate Alex Rodriguez, who two years ago moved to third base to accommodate Derek Jeter, could play some shortstop.

Beyond a lefty-lefty-lefty (Willis, Al Leiter, Brian Fuentes) pitching plan against the left-handed-heavy Canadian lineup, Martinez offered no strategic insights, other than the observation that this camp was loaded with No. 3 hitters.

Willis, who has been enthusiastically committed to the WBC concept and this team from the inception, seemed most thrilled to wear the uniform and stand among such notable teammates.

"To sit on the same bus as these guys is historic," he said.

Bus?

"Bus," he repeated. "Yes sir. No limos here. Buses. It's baseball and that's why I love it."

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