Still turning mid-March swings and fastballs into something reliable, pushed further by a surprisingly competitive World Baseball Classic, Team USA again played to the ends of those mid-March capabilities Sunday afternoon.
Then it required a fortunate turn, and an umpire's eye, to beat Japan.
Alex Rodriguez floated a soft liner behind second base with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning, Randy Winn scored from third base, and the U.S. was a 4-3 winner in a second-round pool-play game in front of 32,896 at Angel Stadium.
And while the American major leaguers dashed happily onto the field, on their way to a makeshift locker room in center field and tonight's game against Korea, the Japanese players lamented the reversals of a three-run lead and an eighth-inning call.
"You hate to see a win -- not tainted, but with a little controversy," said Winn, the U.S. left fielder. "But for us, right now, we've got to win. I'm not upset with the way we have to do it."
In Japan, they call it zannen -- a pity.
It was how Ichiro Suzuki and his manager, Sadaharu Oh, described the play, and the ruling, and what became a loss.
Two innings after Derrek Lee's two-run home run tied the score, 3-3, Tsuyoshi Nishioka was first ruled to have scored Japan's fourth run on a sacrifice fly, seemingly confirmed when a U.S. appeal at third base was denied by second base umpire Brian Knight.
Convinced Nishioka had left the base before Winn's catch, U.S. Manager Buck Martinez argued that the call, first, was incorrect and, second, wasn't even Knight's to make. Plate umpire Bob Davidson agreed, spoke briefly with Knight, and ruled Nishioka out, ending the inning. Replays appeared to support Nishioka, along with Oh and a Japanese team that for a few minutes refused to return to the field while Oh bickered in vain with Davidson.
"It's just unimaginable that this could have happened, or did happen, in the U.S., where the baseball is very famous and popular," Oh, a former player whose stature in Japan is Ruthian, said through an interpreter. "And it's a pity that it was overruled."
Most of the U.S. players on the field stated that they had not seen the play, saying they were focused on Winn in the expectation of a play at the plate. But the U.S. reserves, aligned along the dugout railing, shouted and pointed as Nishioka broke from the bag. Jake Peavy, the starting pitcher who gave up three runs in five innings, said he simply joined in.
"We did, in the dugout, sell it, I'll tell you that," he said. "We started pointing from the get-go."
Davidson, the crew chief, said, "That's the plate umpire's call. I had it lined up. The wrong umpire made the initial call. It's the plate umpire, which is me. It's my call, and I had him leaving early and called him out."
Negotiations between the World Umpires Assn. and WBC organizers broke down last month. Therefore, most umpires working the WBC are from the minor leagues, though many, such as Davidson, have major league experience.
Japan left two runners on base in the eighth, as it had in the seventh, and three in the ninth, after the U.S. had rallied from a three-run deficit. Suzuki led off the game with a solo home run, and Munenori Kawasaki had a two-run single in the second. Chipper Jones homered in the second, and Lee homered in the sixth, but the U.S. continually failed to hit with runners on base.
So it was that Japan loaded the bases with one out in the eighth inning, and that Akinori Iwamura lifted a fly ball to left field. The speedy Nishioka scored well ahead of Winn's errant throw, or appeared to. As it turned out, one run still would beat them, and Rodriguez's fisted looper fell, amid chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" Japan plays Mexico on Tuesday.
"I really wanted to win this game," a subdued Oh said. "And I'm a bit vexed."
"A shame," he said, "and a pity."