U.S. starter R.A. Dickey gave up four runs in the first three innings against Mexico. (Getty Images)
PHOENIX – As grim and grisly as the first two versions of the World Baseball Classic turned out for the United States, the possibility now exists for 2013 to set an almost-unbeatable level of futility: Team USA may well be done after its second game. Such ugliness would take a little bit of help and a little more ineptitude, though after watching Mexico coast to a 5-2 victory over the Americans in front of a raucous Chase Field on Friday night, a sobering truth resonated: In WBC games, the country that invented the sport has lost more than it has won.
It's true. Three WBCs, 15 games, seven victories, eight losses. And few as costly as Friday night's. The Americans buried themselves under an early deficit and were suffocated by bad plate discipline, runners stranded and subpar starting pitching. And by the end of the night, amid "Olé" chants from Mexican fans still sponging in a delicious win, Team USA, perpetual favorite and historic underachiever, found itself staring at WBC Gag 3.0.
"In tournament play, talent does not always win," said U.S. starter R.A. Dickey, who allowed four runs, including a pair on the third-inning Adrian Gonzalez home run that broke the game open. "That's just the way it is."
Indeed, and a duality sprouts from the format: The best team may not win, but the games themselves take on far more gravity. The Americans find themselves in an ugly spot of their own doing. With their ace pitcher on the mound and a lineup populated by All-Stars, they lost to a team with two stars, Adrian Gonzalez and Yovani Gallardo, and a potpourri of fill-ins, fringe guys and flameouts.
It was, actually, pretty typical for Team USA in the WBC. Considering everyone in the sport, including commissioner Bud Selig, believes the Americans must win the tournament in order for it to evolve beyond this cute little thing baseball tries to shove down fans' throats every four years, the U.S. played Friday like it was activating a little-known provision in NAFTA that called for the country to give away ballgames to Mexico.
Now the U.S. faces a number of scenarios, none of which is altogether desirable. Two teams out of the U.S.-Mexico-Italy-Canada foursome will advance to Miami. Italy is 2-0, Mexico 1-1 and Canada and the U.S. 0-1.
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Canada and Mexico play Saturday afternoon. If Canada wins, that guarantees Italy a spot in Miami. If Mexico wins, it goes to Miami – and makes the U.S-Italy game Saturday night a do-or-die game for the Americans.
Yes, the United States could get knocked out of a baseball tournament by Italy. That is no joke.
And if the U.S. does beat Italy, it must do so by at least two runs and follow up Sunday with a victory against Canada. That would leave the U.S., Mexico and Italy in a three-way tie at 2-1. The first tiebreaker is run differential among the teams tied. Mexico has a plus-2 differential currently, Italy is plus-1 and the U.S. is minus-3. With a two-run victory, that would leave the U.S. and Italy tied at minus-1.
"We're gonna have to win significantly," U.S. third baseman David Wright said. "Not just win."
The second tiebreaker is earned run differential. And then if they're still tied, the final tiebreaker is head-to-head matchup. Don't ask why that's not the first tiebreaker after run differential, because it makes even less sense than Team USA's continued WBC incompetence.
Should Canada top Mexico, Italy beat the U.S. and the U.S. drop Canada, the tiebreaker would be among the three teams that were 1-2 – and with the number of games remaining, the run-differential numbers are too wide open to parse.
Team USA isn't interested in making this about numbers anyway. The Americans understand the WBC for what it is: a tournament that uses the contrivance of international supremacy to market a game to a worldwide audience that it hopes will accept baseball after, oh, 170 years or so of pretty much ignoring it. Granted, it makes for great stories. The idea of this team of misfits from Italy …
(Little secret: Most of Team Italy isn't even from Italy. More than two-thirds of their roster is populated with Italian-Americans, like Mexico's is with Mexican-Americans, and like Canada, which will start Florida-born Jameson Taillon against the U.S. on Sunday. But that would ruin the idea of this being a true international tournament. So let's just ignore that crucial fact.)
… coming in and running roughshod over the rest of the North American-Mexican bloc is fascinating. That's the idea. It's interesting, far more interesting than the pabulum that passes for spring training intrigue. Amid all of the silliness the WBC provides, that singular charm, baseball that counts for something, even if that something is ill-defined, helps sustain the tournament.
It just doesn't grow it. In order for that to happen, the United States needs to assert its supremacy on a nightly basis and perform like an American audience wants its home team to perform: with dominance and superiority and excellence beyond challenge. The Dream Team spoiled the professionals who came thereafter wearing USA across their chest. Now that is the expectation, and baseball's version of the Dream Team can't even muster a .500 record.
"We're not moping," Dickey said. "We're going to be all right."
He hopes so. Baseball, far more than basketball or football or any other sport, really is of the anyone-can-win-on-any-day variety. Dickey was right. Talent does not always rise to the top in a baseball tournament. Over the first three innings against Gallardo, the U.S. hacked through its entire order on just 37 pitches. In the final three innings, the Americans saw just 45. They looked far more like players working off spring-training rust than ones conditioned to win a tournament.
And yet other teams go through the same thing, and even if they have played winter ball, they often pale in talent compared to the U.S., so it's fair to say: It's even-steven. Which leaves the U.S. hoping its opponents from Italy can engage in some extracurriculars that might put them at a disadvantage.
"I hope they're out drinking and partying it up," U.S. shortstop Jimmy Rollins said.
They planned on it, actually, after mercy-ruling Canada following a come-from-behind win the night before against Mexico. The Italian team is full of no-names – and, in some cases, hard-to-pronounce-names – and its run here draws a great contrast to Team USA's slog toward potential irrelevance. There will come a point, and maybe it is this month after all, when the United States does scratch out its WBC title. The Americans could come together against Italy on Saturday, run Canada on Sunday, move on to Miami and take care of business and find itself in San Francisco for the semifinals and finals, where, based on its talent, it ought to be.
Until it does so, of course, all of that is but a dream, the sort of dream that twice already has died and that found itself in serious condition after a game Friday it desperately wants to forget. The truth with the United States and the WBC is ugly enough already. The last thing it, or the tournament itself, needs is for it to get any uglier.
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