Playoff atmosphere, intensity permeate WBC


ANAHEIM, Calif. -- If you're watching the World Baseball Classic at home and getting the impression that it's a pretty neat event -- with big leaguers playing for patriotism and a childlike love of the game -- join the club.

Derek Jeter knows the tournament is resonating in clubhouses because of all the phone calls he's receiving from peers suddenly stricken with WBC envy.

"I think a lot of players who aren't here maybe would like to be here," Jeter said Sunday. "If people weren't interested in it, they wouldn't be watching. And it seems like everyone knows what's happening. Everywhere you go, you hear about it."

Team USA christened Round 2 with a 4-3 victory over Japan, and there were enough tense moments to make you forget that it was NCAA Selection Sunday. It was the type of baseball typically reserved for chilly fall nights, when the foliage is out and the kids are revved up for Halloween.

By the time Alex Rodriguez's soft line-drive single skittered up the middle to score Randy Winn with the deciding run in the bottom of the ninth, enough emotions had been frayed, flags had been waved and "USA" chants had been raised to conjure images of the Olympics or the Republican national convention. After the game, USA catcher Brian Schneider used the description "goose bumps" three times during a two-minute interview.

You knew the game mattered because there was an honest-to-goodness umpiring controversy. A disputed call by Bob Davidson negated a potential go-ahead run by Japan in the eighth inning and prompted Japanese manager Sadaharu Oh to express his displeasure at the inherent unfairness of it all. The last time the umpires were this conspicuous, Josh Paul was rolling the ball back to the mound and A.J. Pierzynski was sprinting to first in the American League Championship Series.

This game provided definitive evidence that a better caliber of play will increase the intensity level exponentially. The teams with high school gym teachers playing shortstop have been eliminated from the WBC, the mercy rule has been mothballed and momentum continues to build.

"It's the best baseball experience of my life," Team USA third baseman Chipper Jones said. "Period. Bar none. It beats any World Series win, any World Series loss, any All-Star Game."

The early buzz was that Anaheim lacked the fervor present in the other second-round venue in San Juan. But speculation that ticket sales were lagging and the locals were blasť lacked merit. The crowd of 32,896, which featured a healthy Japanese representation, was into it from the first pitch, and Angel Stadium got louder as the game progressed.

Japan took an early 3-0 lead against Jake Peavy on an Ichiro Suzuki solo homer and a two-run single by shortstop Munenori Kawasaki. The Americans came back to tie it on homers by Jones and Derrek Lee.

Enter controversy. Japan loaded the bases against Joe Nathan with one out in the eighth, and third baseman Akinori Iwamura lofted a fly ball to medium left field. Winn made a weak throw to the plate, and Japan second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka scored standing up to make it 4-3.

Or so he thought.

The American bench erupted, protesting that Nishioka had left early. Schneider threw down to Jeter at third base on appeal, but second-base umpire Brian Knight ruled that Nishioka had tagged up properly and the run was legit.

Then Team USA manager Buck Martinez came out of the dugout to protest, and chaos broke out in two languages.

Davidson briefly conferred with Knight and determined that Nishioka had, indeed, left early. "The wrong umpire made the initial call," Davidson said. "It's the plate umpire, which is me. It's my call, and I had him leaving early and called him out."

Replays, while not conclusive, appear to show that the Japanese team had a beef. Oh, typically unflappable, was pointed in his postgame assessment. He wondered why the rules don't permit the umpire closest to the play to have a say. And he lamented the fact that such a bogus call should take place in the hallowed home of baseball.

Davidson was about to become the WBC version of Doug Eddings.

"It's just unimaginable that this could have happened, or did happen, in the U.S., where baseball is very famous and popular," Oh said through an interpreter. "And it's a pity that it was overruled."

It's a pity because the call obscured such a crisp, selfless display of baseball on both ends. For American players who might have been unaware, Japan's roster is filled with pitchers who deal and hitters who manage to take aggressive swings while simultaneously maintaining their plate discipline. These guys are a lot more than The Ichiro Show.

And it's time to stow the perception that the Americans might approach this competition halfheartedly or with a fear of getting hurt. In the eighth inning, Derrek Lee dove to catch a foul bunt and came up wincing when all his weight landed on his shoulder. When a reporter observed that Cubs manager Dusty Baker might have had a coronary if he saw the play on TV, Lee smiled sheepishly.

"Hopefully, Dusty was at his game and he wasn't watching," Lee said.

The USA team's effort was embodied by Jeter's dropping down a textbook sacrifice bunt in the seventh inning and reliever Brian Fuentes' maintaining a 3-3 tie by retiring Ichiro on a full count with an entire stadium on edge. If Fuentes thought he earned the right to break in slowly this spring after saving 31 games for Colorado last season, he thought wrong.

Houston's Brad Lidge, who gave up crushing postseason homers to Albert Pujols and Scott Podsednik in October, dunked his toe back in the pressure pool when he snapped off a 1-2 slider to strike out Hitoshi Tamura with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth. There is no earthly way Lidge would throw a pitch that nasty in a March 12 Grapefruit League game.

More than anything, it was the images from the dugout that encapsulated the day for Team USA. There was Mark Teixeira jumping up and down like a little kid waiting for his Christmas presents, and bat boy Trey Griffey agonizing as his father struck out on a high fastball before A-Rod's climactic single. Ken Griffey Jr. usually lays off that pitch. But when the stakes are this high, everybody wants to be a hero.

"This is no All-Star or exhibition game," Lidge said. "It's definitely a playoff atmosphere. There's no other way to describe it. It feels awesome to be out there right now."

Awesome enough that the word is getting around. The players who declined invitations to the WBC because it might flop or it wasn't worth the time are starting to reach a different conclusion: Maybe it's their loss.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.