MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Go ahead, doubters. Rip away. There is no defending the World Baseball Classic today, no salient argument for a tournament that is like a teenage wasteoid, so full of potential and so tremendous at squandering it.
Where to start on the night of Team USA's stay-alive 9-3 victory over the upstart Netherlands? How about the injuries? One is a bummer, two a coincidence, three a shame. Four, though? Four players from Team USA coming up lame in two days is a trend, and when those players include the reigning American League MVP (Dustin Pedroia), a former National League MVP (Chipper Jones), a future NL MVP (Ryan Braun) and a young closer (Matt Lindstrom), it lends credence to every fretful general manager who leashes his players to spring training.
"Everybody's concerned," Braun said. "We recognize the importance of being healthy for the start of the season and going back to our teams in good shape. There's probably a little more intensity, a little more adrenaline than we're used to having this time of year."
Braun felt a tug in the lower ribcage on his right side, the same injury that sidelined him for a week last year and could prompt the Milwaukee Brewers to keep him out of further WBC action. Jones strained an oblique, the sort of problem that tends to linger and ended his participation in the tournament. And even though Pedroia shrugged off his strained abdominal muscle, he won't rejoin Team USA, either. For the rest of this round, which continues with a do-or-die game against the loser of Monday's winners' bracket contest between Puerto Rico and Venezuela, the United States will likely have 11 position players.
The cause of the injuries remains nebulous. Catcher Brian McCann said the team stretches sufficiently. The facilities Team USA used in the first round and here are better equipped than those in San Juan and Mexico City, two other sites. Other countries' players may participate in a winter league, but not the stars, and they're holding up fine. And position players with strained torsos don't exactly fit the stereotypical WBC injury.
"For pitchers, I think this is more dangerous than it is for hitters," Braun said. "For pitchers to be throwing max effort, all out, and especially velocity guys that try to throw hard when they might not be ready to do that."
In other words: Lindstrom, whom the baseball gods smote after he nearly caused a bench-clearing beatdown.
Lindstrom left with a sore right shoulder 10 pitches after whirring a 96-mph fastball behind Dutch third baseman Vince Rooi because he thought the previous batter, Bryan Engelhardt, stared a little too long at a home run. Engelhardt didn't pimp his homer any more than an average ballplayer will in June. Lindstrom retaliated anyway. The Dutch poured out of their dugout. Only Kevin Youkilis seemed interested in standing up for Lindstrom, and none of his teammates condoned his actions later. The only person who tried got caught in a lie.
"He wasn't throwing at the third baseman," Team USA manager Davey Johnson said. "He was trying to hump up and get a little extra on him, and the ball got away from him."
"I was just trying to send a message," Lindstrom said. "If I wanted to hit him, I probably could have."
Clown college continued in the ninth inning, when Johnson used McCann to pinch hit and, because of an injury-depleted roster, left himself with two outfielders. So who trotted out to left field in the ninth? Brian McCann, naturally.
No doubt Frank Wren and Bobby Cox, the Atlanta Braves' general manager and manager, were having a good laugh about their $27 million catcher manning a position he had never played. Seriously, McCann never had gone near an outfield, and yet Johnson – who the previous night stuck with a terrible Jake Peavy during the 11-1 shellacking by Puerto Rico in deference to the San Diego Padres' wishes – asked him to give it a whirl.
It was the Ides of March. Murder was in the air, and the Braves' season was as good a potential victim as any.
When McCann ran past third baseman Mark DeRosa – who could have played outfield, with Derek Jeter shifting to third base, or Kevin Youkilis moving to third and Jeter manning first – it prompted a double take. McCann thanked DeRosa for the use of his outfielder's glove, then played an incident-free ninth.
"I wasn't going to do anything crazy out there," McCann said. "I wasn't going to dive for anything, or anything like that."
"I'm horrible in the outfield," he said. "When I shag [batting practice] in the outfield before the game, it's not a pretty sight. I'd have rather played infield."
Witnesses included 11,059 brave spectators, or about 15 percent capacity at Dophin Stadium. To hold the second round in the worst baseball market wasn't a stroke of genius, and to do so with overpriced tickets – especially in light of the recession – compounded a rough situation.
All of it is difficult to reconcile with the WBC that shone with such brilliance in the first round: the upsets and raucous crowds and the positive energy that befits an event trying, in earnest, to showcase the best of the sport. There's a sinking feeling, especially as the injuries mount, that teams will increasingly use the risk factor as a convenient excuse to withhold players. The WBC is only as good as its players, and to have a respected organization like Atlanta questioning the tournament – as the Braves certainly should do, even if commissioner Bud Selig begs otherwise – presents another roadblock on a highway filled with orange barrels.
The good news is, Major League Baseball has time to fix this. The WBC is here to stay. It makes too much money, and for all the talk of spreading the game internationally, long-term plays don't fly if short-term bets bleed. It can mature into the premier event it shows flashes of becoming. This is only the second go-around, so perhaps these are simply growing pains.
For now, though, it could use some analgesic. It's banged up pretty good.