Classic imparts valuable lessons on US
Americans learn how tournament finalists go about their business
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
Brian McCann (right) and Mark DeRosa watch their tournament days come to an end on Sunday (AP)
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LOS ANGELES -- Japan and Korea are meeting in the World Baseball Classic final on Monday evening at Dodger Stadium, and that leaves Team USA and its bevy of Major League players as spectators for what has become the world's most coveted international baseball championship.
And now it can't be ignored: The U.S. is no longer the undisputed leader of the game that was invented on its own soil. Team USA finished sixth in the 2006 inaugural Classic and fourth this year, following a 9-4 loss to defending champion Japan on Sunday.
Perhaps Team USA could learn a thing or two from the two finalists.
The Asian teams trained harder and for longer in preparation for this tournament, they take infield practice before every game and both are fundamentally sound and do whatever it takes as a club to win a game.
The results have been impressive. Korea won the last Olympic gold baseball medal in 2008, with the U.S. earning the bronze, and marched past powerful Venezuela into the Classic final. The Japanese were so serious about defending their '06 Classic title that they enlisted a sitting manager -- Tatsunori Hara of the Yomiuri Giants -- to run the show this spring, and now the Samurai are back in the finals.
After the game on Sunday, Team USA manager Davey Johnson was asked if Japan had passed the U.S. as a baseball-playing nation.
"No, I think we had quality players," Johnson said. "It's just one ballgame. You know, some of our pitchers aren't as far along as the Japanese pitchers. I think that's the second time that I've been beaten by a Japanese team, managing a U.S. team. And I've probably played about 10 games against Japanese teams. But I have to hand it to them. They have a very good team."
The Japanese win with just enough offense, solid defense and great pitching. They go into Monday's final game with a 1.57 staff ERA -- 12 earned runs in eight games. The U.S., in contrast, finished with a 5.99 ERA -- 45 earned runs in eight games. Offensively, the U.S. had 12 homers and scored 50 runs. The Japanese have four homers, but they've scored only five fewer runs.
How do they do it? Their first run in the second inning on Monday was a case in point, fashioned on a leadoff walk, a hit-and-run single that moved the runner to third and a sacrifice fly. Really, it's old-style National League baseball like the Cardinals played under Whitey Herzog in the 1980s, when they ran rampant on the basepaths and created run after run.
"You know when you play Japan and Korea, they're going to play fundamentally sound baseball," said U.S. second baseman Brian Roberts, who batted .438 (7-for-16) in the four games he played after joining the team as an injury replacement for Dustin Pedroia. "They're going to do the little things, and you're going to have to go out there and beat them. And so when it comes to that, there's something for everyone to learn from.
"As Americans, we probably don't do that at times. I think people look at the money and their contracts and what pays in the States may not pay when you watch them play. Unfortunately, that's becomes a reality in Major League Baseball and in our culture."
No doubt, though, if the U.S. wants to get back in the game with the Japanese and Koreans, something has to change.
Is it the training? The U.S. lost at least five players to injuries during the course of the tournament. The Japanese have lost one, the Koreans none.
"I don't think anyone prepares harder than we do," said Team USA's Mark DeRosa. "They've just been getting ready since December. I don't think it has anything to do with preparation."
Like the Asian teams, the U.S. has to get serious about attaining a more fundamentally sound approach regardless of the quality of players on the roster.
There's the old axiom in baseball: No one can give a good team extra outs. On Sunday night, a fielding miscue by Roberts and throwing errors by third baseman David Wright and shortstop Derek Jeter gave Japan extra outs and three unearned runs.
"They were fundamentally sound," said Jimmy Rollins, who hit .417 (10-for-24) in the tournament. "They took advantage of mistakes and didn't worry about trying to drive the ball out of the ballpark. And when you put the ball in play, you can find some holes. They definitely did that. They play with passion.
"We play with passion, but they just wear theirs on their sleeves. They do things right, and if there's anything we can learn from what we've seen is to take advantage of another team's mistakes."