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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Canada Defeats Sleeping USA Hodgepodge

Today the Canadians beat team USA, and they absolutely should have. I was going to do another report like I did for USA's first game, but I'm too irritated to do that right now.

Here's the thing: I've been as excited as anyone about this tournament. I've watched a game each night, and have attended both of team USA's games. I was even considering going to the South Africa game on Friday, but I'm through with that. The reason? For all their talk about patriotism and excitement about "representing" their country, it became very apparent in the early innings today--and even during the victory versus Mexico yesterday--that Team USA wasn't taking this seriously. Sure, some players were definitely trying to compete. Junior, in particular, has had a great first couple of games (er...half-games). But the team as a whole is not playing to win.

Some of it comes from players, some of whom clearly did not look like they were giving it their all (I noted ~5 fielding miscues today...none were errors per se, but they were definitely not mistakes you'd expect from this team of elite veterans).

But the biggest blame falls on USA manager Buck Martinez. Unlike all the other managers in this tournament (at least among games I've seen), Martinez is clearly not playing to win. He's treating these games like all-star games, and seems far more worried about giving people their scripted appearances than actually trying to pull out a victory. Cases in point:
  • Jake Peavy pitched brilliantly through 3 innings in yesterday's game, was well below the 65-pitch count, and yet he was pulled to start the parade of closers.
  • Al Leiter was pitching today (why he's on the team at all is a mystery to me), and wasn't taken out until his pitch count approached the magical number 30...and not before allowing an enormous number of runs. He should only be used as a lefthanded specialist, if anything. With the pitchers Martinez has in his bullpen, Leiter shouldn't be used unless absolutely necessary.
  • Ken Griffey Jr. was pulled for pinch runner Jeff Francoeur in the 5th inning today, despite still being down by 7 runs. I'm all for this move in the 8th inning, but when there are several at-bats left for USA's hottest hitter (Griffey) and we're that far down this is a pointless move.
  • Jason Varitek, having just hit a grand slam to bring us with 2 runs, was removed in the bottom of the 7th for Schneider. Why on earth would you remove the guy who just pulled you back into the game when you are still down by two runs.
  • Derek Jeter was pulled in favor of Chase Utley in the 6th inning. How does that make this team more offensively capable so that they might overcome the final two runs?
  • How is it that Vernon Wells was starting in right field today, while Griffey was in center? I love Griff--he's probably my favorite player of all time--but he's not a good defender these days, and shouldn't be in centerfield when there are more capable centerfielders in the lineup. And it cost us; I think most centerfielders would have gotten to the triple hit by Stern, which drove home the second Canadian run. (edited: removed complaint about Teixeira starting at 1B over Derek Lee. As Joel pointed out, both are gifted defenders).
  • Matt Holliday started in left field over Johnny Damon. Again, how does this make us better?
I think the players started to snap out of it in the 4th inning (maybe with the Teixeira steal?), and were definitely gelling in the 5th when they put up the six runs. But the first thing Martinez did after that inning was over was to pull out Jeter and Jones. Even if their replacements were just as capable (and yeah, I'd rather have A-Rod out there than Chipper), you're still replacing warm players who had already had productive at-bats in the game with cold players off the bench. Again, it's hurting the team's performance, and is definitely not playing to win.

Maybe I could deal with this if this tournament wasn't talked up so much by MLB. If this is going to be some glorified series of all-star games, fine. I'll take the games with a grain of salt and will root for South Africa to take out the USA on Friday. But if MLB is going to continue to pitch this tournament "the real thing" (to quote Roger Clemens), at least have the courtesy to play the games like you are trying to actually win. If you still lose, that's fine; at least you could say that you gave it your all. Don't we, the paying fans who are dedicating our time and attention to this new tournament, who are defending it from its critics, who are cheering for our our nations' team...don't we have a right to expect that they'll at least TRY to win?