Americans try to reach World Baseball Classic title game at last
Ryan Vogelsong has a little running joke that he is going to plunk San Francisco teammate Pablo Sandoval in the World Baseball Classic to keep the Panda from a three-homer game like the one he produced in Game 1 of the World Series last fall.
Sandoval plans to play nice once he pulls on the Venezuela uniform.
"He's my teammate, I don't want to fight," Sandoval said with a smile.
Both know the team to beat: Two-time WBC winner Japan.
Joe Torre is returning to the top step of the dugout to manage the Americans, who have yet to even reach the championship game of this hugely popular international event played every three years.
Team USA has plenty of motivation to make up for two poor showings in this tournament. The Americans didn't get out of the second round in 2009, then lost in the semifinals to Japan three years ago. Now, they are making plans to reach the semifinals and final at San Francisco's AT&T Park.
"We'll probably be disappointed if we don't make it to San Francisco," said Vogelsong, slated to be the No. 2 starter in the U.S. rotation. "First and foremost, we're focused on getting there."
The Japanese topped Cuba in the inaugural Classic in 2006, then South Korea three years later. Japan is known for its rigorous spring trainings, which typically begin a couple of weeks before the major league clubs and feature all-day workouts with just a short break to eat.
"It's such a dedicated group of players. I go back to going over to Japan as a member of the Mets back in '74 and just noticing and at that time I didn't think necessarily that the Japanese could play at our level, maybe stature-wise," Torre recalled. "Even though their game was clean and disciplined, it just didn't look like they were as good as we were. That's certainly has changed."
Rockies slugger Carlos Gonzalez will play alongside Sandoval for Venezuela. The World Series champion Giants have had to plan carefully this spring to get through the Cactus League with much of their roster headed to the WBC — Marco Scutaro on Venezuela, Angel Pagan and Andres Torres on Puerto Rico, Vogelsong and reliever Jeremy Affeldt on the U.S. team, closer Sergio Romo pitching for Mexico.
"It's my first time representing and I'm really looking forward to doing it," Pagan said. "The first two Classics I couldn't do it because I was either trying to make a team or I was trying to be the everyday player. It fills my heart to go out there and play in front of my countrymen and in front of my family. I did it when I played in New York and Puerto Rico but it's not the same when you're wearing the P.R. jersey. It's going to be a little different, and I'm ready."
And CarGo sure is confident in Venezuela's chances.
"I don't think we need practice — Venezuela doesn't need practice," he said. "Japan, they train together for a long time and get prepared for that. We don't really get prepared for that, we all focus on our teams. 'OK, you've got to go play for your country.' We're all going to be blind, put the uniform on, let's play."
Many players are torn between playing for their country or playing for the club that signs their paycheck — especially those who might be on the bubble of making the roster or earning a starting job.
Gonzalez said the Venezuelans feel tremendous pressure to take part in the Classic, yet he understands why Seattle ace Felix Hernandez has passed after signing a $175 million, seven-year contract earlier this month that made him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball.
"You have to represent your team," Gonzalez said. "You see all the news about King Felix not playing for Venezuela and the whole country changes, they get upset that you're not going to play for your country. They think it's all about the money but, you know what, we've been working since we were 16 years old and we came from Venezuela to represent. Especially King Felix, he's been playing since he was 16 with Seattle. He's a franchise player who was about to sign the biggest contract. It's crazy how people feel bad about it. He has to think about his future, he has to think about his family. I think made the right choice."
The inaugural 2006 Classic featured a pool-play format, while 2009 was double-elimination — and this one will be a combination of both. The first round will be pool play, with the top two teams advancing. The second round is double-elimination, and the top two teams will reach the semifinals.
The Americans will play their round-robin games at the Arizona Diamondbacks' Chase Field in Phoenix.
"I'm not sure that our players weren't excited," Torre said of the previous two WBC tournaments. "The guys who have played this before were excited to get back to it. I think it's still something to get a little used to. Let's admit it, you play the USA team, MLB, even though there are a number of MLB players obviously playing for other countries, it's like putting on your Sunday best, you know, 'We're excited because we have a chance to beat them at their own game' so to speak."
Semifinals will be played March 17-18, with the championship March 19 in the Giants' waterfront ballpark.
That's where Sandoval cleared the fences three times in a Game 1 World Series win against the Tigers.
The guy known as Kung Fu Panda hopes to find his groove again for his country.
"I'm trying to get the Triple Crown," Sandoval said of the World Series, Venezuelan championship and World Baseball Classic.
Even if it does mean he gets hit by Vogelsong along the way.
AP Sports Writer Bob Baum contributed to this story.
—Animated crowds so different than the regular MLB supporters, complete with instruments, patriotic chants, face paint and flags. More than 1.5 million fans have attended games in first two WBC tournaments.
—This year's field went from 16 in previous two events to 28 countries that had a chance to qualify. The top 12 nations from the last WBC were already in, then the other four determined from 28 teams through qualifying. The WBC winner will be named world champion for the first time.
—It's now a six-game, modified double-elimination format. The inaugural 2006 Classic featured a pool-play format, while 2009 was double-elimination — and this one will be a combination of both. The first round will be pool play, with the top two teams advancing. The second round is double-elimination, and the top two teams will reach the semifinals.
—Americans on a mission: Team USA has yet to reach the championship game of the first two Classics.
—Players will be subject to drug testing by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
—San Juan, Puerto Rico, will host games for the third time at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, to be played March 7-10.
—Sparkling new Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the shared spring venue of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, will be on display for the world to see. The ballpark hosts Pool D games between the U.S., Italy, Mexico and qualifier Canada.