American hopes hanging by a thread


ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Dontrelle Willis is the type of young, charismatic star that baseball is dying to promote on an international stage. You don't have to speak English to appreciate a major leaguer who blows bubbles during mound conferences, roots for his teammates so passionately and earnestly, and sprints to the dugout like a Little Leaguer piling into the van for a trip to Dairy Queen.

Commissioner Bud Selig was properly appreciative when Willis accepted his invitation to the World Baseball Classic, and the Florida Marlins' lefty pronounced himself honored. On the first day of workouts in Phoenix 10 days ago, Willis' voice nearly cracked when he talked about the crisp Team USA uniform hanging from his clubhouse locker stall.

Unfortunately, the downside to playing on a stage this big is the miniscule margin of error. Willis has some kinks to work out, and it would be easier in front of the pitching coach in sleepy Jupiter, Fla. But he made a commitment, so he must plug along while the baseball world watches.

It's not a pretty sight. After getting battered by a predominantly left-handed-hitting Team Canada lineup in the first round of the WBC, Willis unveiled his control-impaired side against Korea. He threw only 28 strikes in 59 pitches over three innings and left trailing 3-1. The Americans never recovered and fell 7-3 before a chilled crowd of 21,288 at Angel Stadium.

This game served as some vicarious payback for millions of Japanese fans still fuming over a loss to Team USA on a questionable umpire's call Sunday. And it's created a stressful situation for the Americans, who could be eliminated even before Roger Clemens takes the mound against Mexico on Thursday.

A failure to advance to the semifinals in San Diego would be a monumental letdown for the Americans, who already needed help to survive the first round in Arizona. The difference this time: There's no South African laugher at the end of the tunnel.

"The toughest aspect is sitting around watching other games go on while you're not playing," said Team USA manager Buck Martinez. "We need to have a little cooperation in the pool. That's our fate."

No one is going to have a longer three days than Willis, whose performance here has been a stark departure from his marvelous, 22-win effort with Florida in 2005. In the first round, Willis attributed his problems to being too revved up with national pride. He had his head screwed on straight against Korea, but left his command at the team hotel.

"I think I was very composed out there," Willis said. "I had a great game plan. I just didn't execute it. When I missed the zone, they squared up balls. I just had bad rhythm today.

"I'm still excited to be here. The bottom line is, I'm just not playing good baseball. I'm a man and I can admit that."

The euphoria that swept the USA clubhouse after Sunday's 4-3 victory over Japan was nowhere to be found. Reliever Dan Wheeler had problems of his own after Willis departed, and the defense was sloppy. Chase Utley made two errors in an inning, and Derek Jeter bounced a routine throw to first.

Vernon Wells struck out with the bases loaded to end the fourth inning, and Alex Rodriguez, who produced the game-winning hit against Japan, failed three times in situations where a hit would have given the Americans a boost. When Rodriguez popped up to end a threat in the seventh, he slammed his bat to the ground in frustration.

Korea, which upset Japan in the first round, is now 5-0 in the WBC and quickly outgrowing the "darkhorse" label. Manager In Sik Kim's squad features a deep and versatile pitching staff, an airtight defense (the Koreans have yet to make an error), and a legitimate bopper in 29-year-old first baseman Seung Yeop Lee. He has 324 homers in nine seasons with the Samsung Lions and is known to his legion of fans as the "Lion King."

Lee hit a long homer to right field off Willis to give the Koreans a 1-0 lead in the first inning, and the tone was set. When Willis' fastball began to wander, USA pitching coach Marcel Lachemann came to the mound for a visit, but it didn't help. The situation was so dire that Boston-New York combatants Jason Varitek and A-Rod even congregated on the mound at one point. That couldn't cure Willis' ills, either.

From Korea's vantage point, the WBC has been a nice showcase for big leaguers whose careers have hit a rut. Former Rangers flameout Chan Ho Park might not have a spot guaranteed in the San Diego Padres' rotation in 2006, but he has pitched wonderfully in a closer's role for his national team in this tournament.

And Hee-Seop Choi, whose chances of playing first base in Los Angeles came and went when the Dodgers signed Nomar Garciaparra, had a night to remember after struggling in the first round. Choi came off the bench as a pinch-hitter in the fourth inning and tucked a three-run homer inside the right field foul pole against Wheeler to turn a 3-1 game into a 6-1 joyride for Korea.

Choi, who is often described as too streaky and/or too passive by his detractors, was downright euphoric after the homer, smacking every single palm as he high-fived his way down the Korea dugout. He ranked the night ahead of his previous major-league highlight, when he hit three homers in a game against Minnesota last June. They called him Three-Seop Choi that night.

"This is different," Choi said through an interpreter. "It's a lot more meaningful. I'm playing for my home country and we were able to win over the USA, which is the best team in the world."

That statement is sure debatable at the moment. The Americans have the tradition and the marquee names, but right now they're holding on by a thread. Like the manager says, it's their fate.

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.