Commentary

Mistakes made, starting with Johnson

Team USA manager had a rough night in Sunday's loss against Japan

Updated: March 23, 2009, 12:20 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- America's problem with the World Baseball Classic can be summed up with the eighth inning of Sunday night's 9-4 loss to Japan.

After trailing much of the game by four runs, the U.S. had cut the lead to 6-4 in the top of the eighth inning and had the heart of the order due to bat in the ninth against Yu Darvish, a superb young starter but one with no experience as a closer. Unfortunately, by the time the U.S. batted against Darvish, it trailed not by two runs but five because Derek Jeter threw wildly to first base on a routine two-out grounder. Instead of ending the inning, Jeter's throw extended it and Japan quickly put the game out of reach for good.

Errors certainly are part of the game. These things happen. But the question is why was Jeter playing shortstop ahead of Jimmy Rollins in the first place?

Yes, I know. Jeter is a true Yankee, a future Hall of Famer, one of the game's most respected players and a proven winner who won a World Series as recently as the dawn of the century. And if your goal is to not hurt anyone's feelings, then you start him at short. But if your real goal is to reach the championship -- and isn't that supposed to be the point of playing in the WBC? -- then your starting shortstop is Rollins, the much superior fielder. You start Rollins at short and have Jeter DH, not the other way around.

[+] EnlargeDavey Johnson
AP Photo/Chris YoungSome of Davey Johnson's decisions in Sunday's loss against Japan were certainly questionable.

I mean, that's what you do if you really care about winning.

Japan clearly does, which is why it will defend its WBC championship in Monday's finale against Korea. When Japan was choosing a manager, word leaked out that the choice would be Senichi Hoshino, a former skipper in the Japan major leagues who had a disastrous run as its Olympic manager last summer. Ichiro heard about this and said that if the country really was serious about winning, it would choose an active manager. Sufficiently criticized, Japan selected Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara instead.

The U.S. team, which went with Buck Martinez in 2006, chose to go with Davey Johnson this time, even though Johnson hasn't managed in the majors in nine years and, like Hoshino, hardly distinguished himself managing in last summer's Olympics. He may have managed three big league teams into the postseason and won the World Series with the Mets, but 1986 was a long time ago, and Johnson's best days as manager are behind him.

Johnson was asleep at the wheel in the fourth inning when Japan took the lead with five runs against starter Roy Oswalt. The game and the tournament were unraveling steadily, yet by the time Johnson finally relieved Oswalt with John Grabow (who had been bothered slightly by a sore groin), it was too late. Johnson said the problem was it took Grabow longer than expected to get ready because of the cool weather, as if the temperature was a sudden surprise.

That wasn't Johnson's worst move, though. No, that also came in the eighth, when he rushed right-handed batter Evan Longoria up to pinch-hit for left-handed batter Curtis Granderson against right-handed pitcher Takahiro Mahara when the U.S. was closing the gap. Longoria struck out, which wasn't too surprising given that he just joined the team this weekend after a cross-country flight and had so little time to prepare for the at-bat that he barely was able to swing in the on-deck circle.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Rollins
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillJimmy Rollins had a big day at the plate against Japan. But why wasn't he at shortstop, too?

Why bring in a right-handed third baseman for a left-handed center fielder against a right-handed pitcher? Johnson said he did so in hopes Longoria would hit a home run. But the wind was blowing in all night and after Mark DeRosa crushed two balls only to see them die before the warning track earlier in the game, it was obvious that no one was going deep to left. To burn three players to make such a move anyway is either foolish or wishful thinking.

Or something else. Johnson said another reason for batting Longoria was to get him in the game after he flew all the way across the country.

Oh. Well, in that case …

It's one thing for the U.S. to be hamstrung in the WBC because many of its best players refuse to participate. It's another not to make the best use of the players you have.

The WBC is wildly popular in other countries, where the games get Super Bowl ratings and the fans feel they really are sending out the best team possible. In America, meanwhile, "John and Kate Plus Eight'' gets better ratings than the WBC. That's partly because many fans don't take the WBC seriously. When you see games managed like Team USA's semifinal loss to Japan, it's hard to say they don't have some basis for their argument.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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