WBC elimination game: USA enters with swagger, Canada struts with fists tight

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

PHOENIX – On one side is a team of big names, All-Stars, hundred-millionaires, published authors, shampoo spokesmen, pitchmen and World Series heroes. And on the other side is a group that just kicked some ass in a fight.

Who ya got?

Scuttle the predictions, the hype and everything else that at one point defined Pool D of the World Baseball Classic, and replace it with a simple reality: Either Team USA (the celebrities) or Team Canada (the ass-kickers) is moving on to the next round of the WBC in Miami with a victory at 4 p.m. ET Sunday, and the other is heading back to spring training bathed in what-coulda-been.

After a dozen uninspired innings to start the tournament, the Americans finally looked the part of tournament favorite Saturday night, riding a David Wright grand slam to a 6-2 victory over surprising Team Italy, which already had clinched a trip to Miami. Canada took care of that, eliminating Mexico with a 10-3 pummeling while finding time for an old-fashioned basebrawl that made them feel extra Canadian.

More important, it set up the matchup that allows Canada to exact revenge for "Argo" not giving it enough credit. Or maybe for all those exchange-rate jokes. ($1 US = $1.03 Canadian. Take that.) Or perhaps what Bud Selig did to the Expos.

"They have the same thing at stake that we do, fight or no fight," U.S. manager Joe Torre said. "You don't need to get motivated to win a Game 7. And that's what basically this is."

[Related: WBC serves as big leagues audition for journeymen]

Whatever the incentive, a hyped-up Team Canada, high off the fight – and you could argue that since winning was their goal and they assisted one another, we witnessed baseball's first Gordie Howe hat trick on Saturday – surges into Sunday with the WBC declining to suspend anyone involved with the brawl and its most talented pitcher ready to slay the U.S.

That Jameson Taillon qualifies therein illustrates the difference between the countries' teams. He is 21 years old. He has thrown 17 innings above Class A. He is, uh, American. And not just, like, sort of American. He was born in Florida, raised in Texas and has dual citizenship only because his parents are Canadian.

Still, Taillon throws in the upper 90s with a hammer for a curveball, and as is the case with all WBC games, it takes but only a few strong innings to place a team in a hole. Of course, the Americans have zero intention of falling into another after a brutal loss to Mexico on Friday followed by three shutout innings against Italy's starter, Luca Panerati, a 23-year-old who never made it out of A ball.

Team USA's vulnerability vanished instantaneously with Wright's homer, the first the Americans have hit over two exhibitions and two games that count. Even though a loss to Italy wouldn't have resulted in elimination, the U.S. would've needed to beat Canada by at least five earned runs (and six runs if one of them was unearned) to win the run-differential tiebreaker. While it would have prompted some fascinating baseball – home run hacks and drawn-in infields from the first inning through the ninth – it's good enough to have a win-or-go-home game without any strings.

"Just the way we played today, it was beautiful," U.S. second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "Hopefully we can take that into the game [Sunday] and try to get a win, because we really want this bad. We want to go to Miami."

The Americans will rely on Derek Holland, the most glaring example of Team USA's inability to convince the country's best starting pitchers to play in the WBC. Torre has a full bullpen at his disposal, and Joe Mauer moving from DH to catcher for the game will free up room for a fresh bat, likely Shane Victorino's. The U.S., on paper, has every advantage.

And yet it did against Mexico, too. And it has in past WBCs. And Team USA is in the same spot as always: expected to win, to push the WBC into relevance, while aware that the tournament format lends itself to upsets like an Italian team that consists of three major leaguers taking whatever talents they do have to South Beach.

[Related: Mariano Rivera maintains grace that defined his career]

Early and often, the storyline of momentum will pop up from your television. Pay it no mind, inasmuch as one acknowledges it will vanish the moment Taillon hangs a curveball to Ryan Braun. The fight was Saturday. America is Sunday. The closest the two will come to meeting is when they're in sentences next to one another.

This much is true: Canada once again feels good about itself after getting mercy-ruled by Italy, and the knowledge that it must beat the U.S. just once is quite fulfilling. And following a night in a silent clubhouse with how-did-that-just-happen looks plastered across their faces, the Americans feel like the Americans one more time.

Which provides a neat little backdrop to the last game of Pool D, the game everybody was hoping would matter. Nobody will mistake this for the 2010 gold medal hockey game. It is instead a culmination of a great first round, from Tokyo to Taiwan to San Juan to Phoenix, one with – yes – meaningful baseball, a little bit of drama and one more fight, this one for a chartered flight to Miami.

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