Asian baseball reigns supreme

LOS ANGELES – You know, with a little more practice, the implementation of grass roots programs and a commitment to the game in concept and deed, the U.S. might one day develop baseball the way they have in Asia.

That's the beauty of the World Baseball Classic. A nation such as the United States can stand on the same ball field as the likes of Japan or South Korea, measuring its upstart professional league against the world's baseball powerhouses.

The USA clearly has ideas about narrowing the gap. Just a little more pitching, an ounce more defense, maybe a tad more intuition from its field manager – hey, these things take generations to build – and the Americans might catch up. Perhaps by the next WBC. Or the one after that. Presumably, the U.S. team comported itself well enough to merit a return invitation.

As it was, the Cinderella USA squad was eliminated Sunday night at Dodger Stadium by Japan, which will play the Koreans on Monday night in an effort to repeat their 2006 WBC championship.

It was cold. The wind was bracing. And still Japan's game was relentless. The Japanese ran USA ace Roy Oswalt before the fourth inning was over, pushed the USA defense into three errors and various other (occasionally comic but always earnest) lapses, and then hammered the USA bullpen for a 9-4 win.

"I thought we played a good ballgame," said USA manager Davey Johnson, drawing great hope for America's hardball future from playing Japan to within five runs.

Alas, while the Americans have mastered the concepts of swinging hard, throwing hard and cashing large paychecks, they remain somewhat behind the world's leading baseball federations in the game's finer areas and for good reason, as USA designated hitter Jimmy Rollins pointed out. Japan's players hit intelligently and situationally, and defend their positions with pride, and generally do not give an inch in any part of the game.

That, of course, would not play in the emerging USA game, which would not embarrass itself by trying too hard and therefore losing all cool.

"Their style is different," Rollins said. "A lot of things they do, you know, we will get criticized for if we did them back home during the regular season. But that's the way they play. They don't worry about the big things. They do things right. And if there is anything that we can take away from what we've seen is to take advantage of another team's mistakes."

All valuable lessons, of course. The USA players, some of whom traveled many tens of miles (first class) for the opportunity to improve their skills and experience baseball at its highest level, were to a player thankful for these weeks (spent in large, luxurious hotel rooms). They learned at the knee of their manager, Johnson, and undoubtedly developed a greater appreciation for just how freakin' talented those mid-'80s Mets teams must have been. And they advanced together all the way to the semifinals, a round beyond where they'd gone three years before.

So, yes, perhaps, they're getting there, catching up, beginning to understand the difference between a spent pitcher (Oswalt, five batters into the fourth inning) and a game that has been all but thrown away (Oswalt, eight batters into the fourth inning.) Of course, they might have figured it out a week ago, when Jake Peavy was allowed to work up his spring-training sweat while being mercy-ruled by the Puerto Ricans. But, again, these are the growing pains of a developing sport, in a nation where football qualifies as the pastime.

"I thought he was throwing the ball all right," Johnson said of Oswalt.

Of course he did.

Then there was the Americans' spunky eighth inning, when they'd drawn to within two runs of Japan and had a runner at third base with one out. Against a right-handed pitcher, Johnson removed his left-handed hitter (Curtis Granderson) for right-handed Evan Longoria, who'd flown in from Florida, hadn't had an at-bat in the tournament and sat in the cold for a good 2½ hours. With the infield in, Longoria struck out.

Yes, the magic of Japanese baseball.

"You know when you play Japan, play Korea, they're going to play fundamentally sound baseball," USA second baseman Brian Roberts said, "and you're going to have to go out and beat them. They're not going to beat themselves."

As a result, Japan and Korea will play for the fifth time in this year's classic. Each has won twice, making the tournament, for them, a best-of-five.

The Americans did not win, and for that they were unhappy. Yet, they might have understood deep down there was a greater good here. They perhaps set a path for another generation of American players, for the team that might very well stand with the great Japanese, the decorated Koreans. There is value in that. Someone had to be here first, for the next to follow, to hold open the door.

Perhaps on Monday night, were they to squint and tilt their heads just so, they could picture a team wearing red, white and blue uniforms, playing on that very field. Someday, maybe. Someday.