After an unexpected loss and a day or so of anxiety, Team USA's final passage into the World Baseball Classic was largely ceremonial Friday, the flags and anthems signaling a 17-0, five-inning victory over undermanned South Africa at Scottsdale Stadium.
The U.S. opens the second round against Japan on Sunday afternoon at Angel Stadium. Korea and Mexico play the late game in Anaheim. Canada, which beat Team USA on Wednesday, was eliminated.
A third of the roster teenagers, the South Africans had serenaded the rest of the teams in the pool with native songs during a banquet early in the week. As baseball players, however, and against a lineup of major league All-Stars, they were, well, wonderful singers.
Roger Clemens, not yet affiliated with a major league team and therefore unbound by front-office angst, pitched 4 1/3 innings and allowed one hit, a groundball single. Ken Griffey Jr. had four hits, including two three-run homers. South African pitchers faced 28 batters in the first three innings, the score was 16-0, the mercy rule was coming into play, and first baseman Derrek Lee was free to retain his citizenship.
"I'm telling you, it was horrible," Lee said of the previous two days. "I told my agent, 'If we lose, I'm moving out of the country.' "
The South African team, for one, would have been happy to have him.
With tournament organizers and Major League Baseball officials pacing uneasily, and an unsettling gale blowing to center and left-center fields, Team USA avoided the ignominy of a three-and-out, not to mention an early return to spring training sites in Arizona and Florida.
The players emerged with a healthy respect for the risks of pool play, finding it more dangerous than a best-of-five division series. The second round is also a pool-play format. The U.S. plays Korea on Monday and Mexico on Thursday. The pitching rotation remains the same: Jake Peavy, followed by Dontrelle Willis and Clemens.
And although any conclusions drawn from Friday's game must consider the opponent, U.S. players generally agreed they'd been too close to failure not to have learned from it.
"The only way to get around that is go out there and win," Johnny Damon said. "We caught a break and definitely jumped on it."
Peavy said he stood in the outfield before Friday's game with a few teammates, talking. They agreed, he said, "It'd be a shame if this thing ended. We're just starting to know each other."
When the game started and the South African outfielders positioned themselves with their heels on the warning track, it was clear they knew what was coming. Despite not playing a single game in a major league park here, however, the South Africans seemed to have a good time, and finished their experience with 17-year-old Jared Elario pitching a scoreless fifth.
Manager Rick Magnante called it "something these boys will treasure forever."
Then there were the usual sights and sounds of American professional baseball, the other memories they'll take with them.
Two weeks after denigrating the WBC, telling USA Today, "Come on, the World Cup isn't the Olympics. Who cares? Does it mean anything?" Barry Bonds mingled with WBC players before the game.
While a report that he was interested in joining the team had eyeballs rolling all over MLB and USA Baseball, Bonds posed for pictures with the Griffey family -- Kens I and II and 12-year-old Trey. After the national anthems, he strolled across the grass behind home plate, waving to people in the crowd, who generally booed him back.
Even if Bonds' right knee were healthy enough to carry him through the next round or two, and Team USA suffered an injury that would open a roster spot, it is unlikely U.S. officials would welcome the chaos that would accompany Bonds, newly reaccused of having illegally used steroids in his quest for the major league home run record.
And, a day after Clemens had visited Texas Ranger camp, Ranger owner Tom Hicks attended the game. Clemens' outing and Hicks' presence led many to the same conclusion.
"I bet he doesn't retire," Lee said. "He looked like Roger."
Schedules for the second round of pool play in the World Baseball Classic (all times Pacific):
at Angel Stadium
* Sunday -- United States vs. Japan, 1 p.m.; Mexico vs. Korea, 8 p.m.
* Monday -- United States vs. Korea, 7 p.m.
* Tuesday -- Japan vs. Mexico, 4 p.m.
* Wednesday -- Korea vs. Japan, 7 p.m.
* Thursday -- United States vs. Mexico, 4:30 p.m.
at San Juan, Puerto Rico
* Sunday -- Cuba vs. Venezuela, 10 a.m.;
Puerto Rico vs. Dominican Republic, 5 p.m.
* Monday -- Dominican Republic vs. Cuba,
11 a.m.; Venezuela vs. Puerto Rico, 5 p.m.
* Tuesday -- Venezuela vs. Dominican Republic, 4 p.m.
* Wednesday -- Puerto Rico vs. Cuba, 4 p.m.