As it turned out, Team USA was not the best baseball team in the world. In fact, it was third best on its continent.
The host country for the inaugural World Baseball Classic and one of the tournament favorites, the U.S. lost for the third time, this by 2-1 to Mexico in front of 38,284 on Thursday night at Angel Stadium.
In the ninth inning, with parts of the crowd forcing one more chant of “USA!” and other parts cheering every strike and every out, Vernon Wells grounded into a double play and the WBC ended for both Team USA and Team Mexico.
Japan, by virtue of one last tiebreaker, and Korea advanced to the semifinals from the Anaheim pool, Cuba and the Dominican Republic from the Puerto Rico pool. Two games will be played Saturday at Petco Park in San Diego, the final game two nights later.
“Tomorrow’s a new day,” Ken Griffey Jr. said, “and we’ve got to go back to our clubs.”
And that was that for the team representing the American major leagues, the nation that calls the game its pastime, that was gone in a mire of stranded baserunners and jam-shot double-play balls.
In six games, the U.S. of Jeter, Junior and A-Rod, of Clemens, Damon and Chipper, lost to Canada, Korea and Mexico.
A win Thursday would have put them in the semifinals, and they had three hits, none with a runner in scoring position, and killed a rally on the basepath. Jorge Cantu drove in both runs for Mexico, and eight pitchers combined to push around the U.S. hitters. In the five games they didn’t play against South Africa, American batters hit .238, and they played against Mexico without Johnny Damon and Derrek Lee, who had sore shoulders.
“We just never really got into the groove with the bats,” U.S. Manager Buck Martinez said. “I think that was the difference in this entire tournament for us, we never really exploded with the bats.”
While its other two losses came primarily as a result of poor starts by Dontrelle Willis, the U.S. left Roger Clemens hanging against Mexico. In what might have been his final start, the 43-year-old right-hander gave up two runs in 4 1/3 innings, ran into a Mexico rally and nearly into his 80-pitch limit. He left to a standing ovation.
Clemens was unavailable after the game because he was occupied with a tournament-mandated drug test, but sent along a short statement that concluded, “And for me, right now, it’s goodbye.”
For the third consecutive off-season, Clemens is considering retirement while measuring lucrative offers to continue his career.
“I want to see him continue to pitch,” catcher Michael Barrett said. “I want to see him in a uniform somewhere. I even threw in a sales pitch for the Chicago Cubs.”
Played out finally before a sea of Mexican and American flags, where Korean and Japanese flags had waved the night before, the pool had one 3-0 team (Korea) and three 1-2 teams. Japan advanced on the basis of runs allowed per nine innings; it gave up five runs in 17 2/3 innings, the U.S. gave up five in 17 innings and Mexico gave up seven in 17 innings.
The U.S. was out by two-thirds of an inning it didn’t even play.
“It just seemed like we were not quite on our A game,” Alex Rodriguez said.
They were not alone.
Again, an umpire’s call was controversial and benefited the Americans. Again, Bob Davidson was the central figure.
On Sunday, Davidson ruled -- incorrectly, by appearances -- that a Japanese baserunner had left early on a tag-up play from third base. Team USA won by a run.
On Thursday, Mexico’s Mario Valenzuela led off the third inning with a fly ball that followed the right-field line and struck the foul pole about 10 feet from the ground -- a home run, by appearances.
Davidson ruled the ball in play and Valenzuela reached second base. Mexican players and coaches argued the call. The four umpires huddled, and stood by Davidson’s view.
With two out, Cantu looped a single to center field, scoring Valenzuela and perhaps saving Davidson everlasting abuse. As Valenzuela crossed the plate, several Mexican players -- Esteban Loaiza and Antonio Osuna among them -- gestured tauntingly at Davidson.