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Mexico feeding off underdog status

3/15/2006

Mexico lost its first game of the second round to Korea Sunday night. Catcher Geronimo Gil struck out swinging in the ninth on a diving Chan Ho Park fastball with the tying run standing on third base.

You might have missed it; the game went off late (first pitch was 11 p.m. ET), the lead story was Korea's fourth straight WBC victory, people were buzzing about the epic clash earlier in the day between the USA and Japan, and still jawing about the way Puerto Rico manhandled the Dominican squad down in San Juan.

Nobody was talking about Mexico.

They get that a lot.

"We don't get much attention," says third baseman and team captain Vinny Castilla. "But that's all right; we know who we are and what we can do."

There's great pride on the Mexico side. If Sunday afternoon was a home date for the U.S. club, it was "una fiesta grande" for Team Mexico that night in Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Despite the chilly (48 degrees Fahrenheit) game-time temp, the park was heated up and packed out, nearly 43,000 strong, most of them wearing sombreros and sarapes … and waving the red, white, and green, and shaking noise makers, and banging drums, and singing "May-hee-ko! May-hee-ko! May-hee-ko!" each time one of their boys made a play or needed a boost.

Castilla will tell you he and his compadres feed off the energy of that crowd. He'll also tell you his club is strong enough to stand on its own.

The Mexicans sport a pitching staff full of big-league talent, including, among others, Esteban Loaiza, Ricardo Rincon, Jorge de la Rosa, Luis Ayala, young Oliver Perez, and Sunday night's hard-luck loser Rodrigo Lopez (one bad home-run pitch in the first inning resulted in Korea's only two runs). After Lopez departed in the fourth inning, four relievers surrendered only two hits the rest of the way. And as a staff, Mexico has posted a 2.38 team ERA in the tournament, giving up just 26 hits and nine runs through four games.

They're a strong defensive group, too. With a runner on in the fifth Sunday night, left fielder Luis Alfonso Garcia got on his horse and tracked down a scorching fly ball in deep left-center that looked like sure extra bases. It was one of the top three or four plays in the tournament so far, and Mexico topped it two innings later when reliever David Cortes pounced on a bunt and began a gutsy 1-6-4, rally-killing double play that brought the "Mexico!" call to a fever pitch.

Castilla, the heart and soul of the club, is quietly having a terrific tournament, hitting .375 with an on-base percentage of .412, and playing with an aggressive, steady hand at third. This tournament -- and the chance to represent his homeland -- inspires him.

"It's a great responsibility," he says. "A great honor for me."

And while we hear this kind of thing from players throughout this tournament, Castilla, at age 38, and after 16 productive years in the big leagues, brings a kind of noble gravitas to the claim. He wears the captain's "C" like he knows what it means, like he's been waiting all his life for the chance. The gleam in his eye when he talks about it, the smile on his face, they're why this tournament feels so right.

Young guys are contributing, too. In addition to his terrific catch, Garcia is having a breakout tournament at the plate. He popped a towering home run off Korea's Jae Weong Seo Sunday -- it looked like an A-Rod blast, the kind that shoots up like a bottle rocket and just seems to carry forever -- and through four games and 11 at-bats, he's put up a team-best 1.285 OPS and a .364 batting average. His career minor-league numbers suggest it's a blip on the radar (he hit just .185 in a brief stint with Norfolk in the International League in 2004), but who cares? Right now the 27-year-old is playing like the "M" on his cap is an "S" on his cape, and it's a beautiful thing to see.

And if Garcia is enjoying a heady run, second baseman Jorge Cantu is building on his budding legend. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays product is 6-for-17, including two home runs, six RBI and 12 total bases. After a season in which he drove in 117 runs for the Rays, he's looking like Mexico's greatest player and appears poised to be one of the best young players in all of baseball.

"He has so much talent he just explodes," Castilla says. "And he's one of these kids, man, who's hungry, always wanting to get better."

His hunger is belied by his casual, baggy-pants-over-the-shoetops way; he plays the infield with an easy grace, and he stands at the plate with a quiet, almost Ripken-esque confidence unique to most 24-year-olds. He has all the earmarks of a major-league all-star, a guy who's going to bang 20-plus home runs and drive in 90 or more a year for the next several years. Which means, of course, he's already ginormous in his homeland.

"You see Devil Rays hats and shirts all over my hometown of Reynosa," he says. "It's a tremendous feeling. It's what you want, you know, to make them proud, to be recognized in your city, in your country, and around the world."

But Tampa Bay isn't exactly the center of the baseball universe, and with the star-studded Dominican, Puerto Rican, and U.S. teams in the field, there isn't much room for Mexico in the WBC headlines, either.

"It makes sense -- people go by the superstars in the big leagues," Castilla says. "It's all right; we like to be the underdogs."

The players wear T-shirts beneath their jerseys that say "Nosotros lo sabemos" (We know it) on the front and "O'lo Sepa El Mundo" (Now let's show the world) on the back. Are they playing with chips on their shoulders? Is there a respect thing at stake? Sure, says Cantu: "Everybody on our team is playing with a little edge. We want to set the world on fire. We want to show people what we're capable of."

In the first round that edge was enough to bring Mexico back from a first-game loss at the hands of the United States. Now, after Sunday night's disappointing 2-1 loss to Korea, they'll have to sharpen it again if they hope to survive and advance. They cannot afford to lose Tuesday against Japan.

"We know we can do better," Cortes says. "We feel we can compete against any team in this tournament."

Japan will be equally desperate for a win, and its patient, creative hitters will be a stiff test for Mexico's pitching staff. But Castilla believes. "It's a short tournament, and we have pitching, and when you have pitching you have a chance," he says. "If we can score some runs, we could surprise a lot of people."

And it's not just the international baseball community the team is looking to surprise and impress, it's the folks back home, too.

"Mexico is in love with soccer," Cantu says. "We want them to know how great baseball is. We want to show our people in Mexico what kind of talent we have."

A run to the final weekend of the WBC could raise baseball's stock throughout Mexico.

"We're proud of the people who are supporting us; the crowd here has been great," Cortes says. "But we're trying to show our whole country we can be better than soccer; we can be bigger."

It's hard to say how that drive might translate into balls-and-strikes or hits-and-runs over the next few days (it wasn't enough Sunday night), but it's not hard to see how it translates into resolve, coherence, and confidence as the team gets ready for their next big test.

"We're disappointed," Cortes says, "but we fight, we don't give up, we know things can get better against Japan."

Will it be enough? Who knows. "We just want it so bad," Cantu says. "No matter what happens, we're going all out."

That, in itself, is worthy of respect. At home and abroad.

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.