The Week Ahead: Classic action reaches U.S. soil
American team gathers in Arizona; scheduled to face Mexico on Friday night
We've been lucky already in a year that ends with 13, and right there we might be bucking a bit of superstition.
Because of the necessary preparations for the third World Baseball Classic, we've seen Spring Training start earlier and we're already spending our down time -- or all our time -- watching the intriguing daily doings of the Cactus and Grapefruit League schedules.
This week, the biggest news across baseball is that we'll see Team USA in action for the first time as the World Baseball Classic, which began last week in various locations overseas, rolls to a full boil.
On the U.S. front, Monday afternoon brings us a full-squad workout at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Ariz. We'll see a retooled American roster trying to win the tournament for the first time, and we'll see a friendly and familiar face in the club's manager, veteran skipper Joe Torre. On Friday night, the U.S. will hit Chase Field for its Classic opener -- a solid matchup against Mexico.
Sure, there are veterans of this competition on the American squad, including Shane Victorino, Ryan Braun, Jimmy Rollins, David Wright and Heath Bell, but there are newcomers, too, such as 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler, Willie Bloomquist, Ben Zobrist and many more.
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"It means a lot to us," Wright said. "Some of these other teams, they're actual teams. It's not just a bunch of individuals. We're going to try to become a team, but you have a bunch of individuals that are with different teams now. We have to come together in less than a week to form a team. Sometimes that's difficult to do."
It starts Monday with the formal get-together and continues Tuesday and Wednesday with exhibition games against the White Sox and Rockies. The first official game will be against Mexico on Friday, while the two other teams in Pool D, Canada and Italy, also try to get off to good starts. The U.S. knows it is a bit behind schedule, considering several of its international opponents have been training for a few weeks.
"You're only together for a short period of time, but you build a bond and camaraderie and chemistry pretty quick," Braun said. "You get to know each other because a lot of guys have played together in All-Star Games and stuff like that. We were definitely disappointed in the results last time. Everybody's goal was to win the tournament. That's certainly our goal and our focus this year."
Meanwhile, two-time defending champion Japan is heading toward a Wednesday game against Cuba in Pool A play in Fukuoka, Japan, which can be seen live on MLB Network. It promises to provide some drama for these two clubs that seem destined to advance to their pool's second round in Tokyo, with Brazil and China clinging to hopes of advancement. This week, we'll also see which teams among Chinese Taipei, Korea, the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Australia will make it out of Pool B to move on to Tokyo for the beginning of that second round on Friday.
Thursday brings us the much-anticipated first game in Pool C, which features title contenders Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico as well as upstart Spain. The two teams that emerge from that pool, which will be played in San Juan, Puerto Rico, will play in the second round against the Pool D advancers, starting March 12 in Miami.
Back in the non-Classic division of Spring Training, there are plenty of storylines to follow this week, too.
The Yankees will see how Ichiro Suzuki performs coming back from a scare suffered in a car accident that totaled his vehicle.
The Indians will figure out what they're going to do without closer Chris Perez, who was supposed to pitch in the Classic but is now out for weeks with a shoulder strain.
The Cardinals will decide how they'll proceed at shortstop now that Rafael Furcal appears to be out indefinitely with an elbow problem.
The same goes with the Brewers, who have to be concerned about third baseman Aramis Ramirez's knee.
Starter Kyle Lohse remains a free agent about five months after wrapping up a season in which he went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA. Might he land in a camp soon?
And how about the Mariners? They're hitting home runs all over the Cactus League and have won nine in a row. Will they keep up this unexpected power surge? And does it mean anything at all this time of year?
"It's almost a little unrealistic the way it's been going, but I don't think it's by accident," said Mariners outfielder Jason Bay. "I think guys are putting their time in. It's a little foolish to think it's going to happen every single game, but we'll take it while we can get it right now."
Elsewhere around the camps, we'll start seeing pitchers ramp up and throw more innings, and more names will pop up (keep an eye on Yasiel Puig, Jedd Gyorko, Brandon Maurer, to name just a few) to make conversations about prospective Opening Day rosters a bit more heated.
Then again, it's still early, so we won't get too far ahead of ourselves.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly astutely stated as much Sunday. When asked if Cuban import Puig had a shot to make the big league club out of Spring Training now that Carl Crawford suffered a setback in his return from elbow surgery, Mattingly spoke with calculated caution.
"He's still raw," Mattingly said. "You don't want to get a guy beat up. Maybe he doesn't struggle, but that's not usually the case. We don't have to make a decision right now."