Commentary

U.S. falls to simple, sound approach

Japan's fundamentally solid style too much for Team USA in WBC semifinal

Updated: March 23, 2009, 12:20 PM ET
By Eric Neel | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- There would be no mob on the infield. There would be no David Wright heroics.

Team USA's ninth-inning comeback against Puerto Rico less than a week ago felt like ancient history as the Americans walked off the field at the end of a 9-4 loss to Team Japan in the second semifinal of the World Baseball Classic on Sunday night. There were some big hits -- Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts led off the game with a line-shot home run into a stiff wind over the center-field fence at Dodger Stadium, and Indians first baseman Mark DeRosa drove in two runs with a double down the left-field line in the eighth inning -- but Team USA's fortunes were determined more than anything by what didn't happen, what they didn't do.

And more specifically, by what manager Davey Johnson didn't do. For the third time in the tournament, Johnson did not move quickly to pull a struggling starter from the game, deciding to stick with Houston Astros ace Roy Oswalt through a five-hit, five-run fourth inning from which Team USA never recovered.

Oswalt gave up all five hits in the inning, including a triple into the corner in deep right field off the bat of Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura.

Roy Oswalt
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesRoy Oswalt was blasted for five runs and five hits in the decisive fourth inning of Sunday's loss against Japan.

"I thought he was throwing the ball all right," a bewildered Johnson said afterward. "They got hits with runners in scoring position -- you've got to hand it to their hitters."

Johnson made a point throughout the tournament of saying that Team USA was in this tournament to win, promising after the dramatic win over Puerto Rico that we had yet to see the best of his team. But when the game was hanging in the balance Sunday night, he seemed to just watch it slip away.

He finally chose Pirates reliever John Grabow to replace Oswalt, but by the time he brought him in, with two outs in the fourth, the damage was done.

"I tried to get Grabow up. I didn't think it was going to take him so long," Johnson said, citing the cold weather in Los Angeles on Sunday night with a quiet sigh, as if the moment had snuck up on him. "It was my fault."

That passivity more than met its match in a Japanese side that constantly put the ball in play, collecting 10 hits on the night, seven of them singles. With short swings and patient hands, Team Japan's hitters consciously and repeatedly flared balls to right field (including five singles, a triple and two sacrifice flies) challenging Washington Nationals right fielder Adam Dunn to make plays.

"I was very impressed by the way they kept their hands back on off-speed stuff," DeRosa said after the game. "You hit like that and you give yourself a chance all the time."

Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who collected four hits on the night, was equally impressed with Japan's approach: "They didn't worry about trying to drive the ball out of the ballpark. And when you put the ball in play you can find some holes."

There was some discussion after the game as to whether the American team might learn something from the Japanese's relentless, thousand-paper-cuts approach to winning big games, just as there was three years ago when Japan and Korea both defeated Team USA in the second round of the first World Baseball Classic.

[+] EnlargeKenji Johjima
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillJapan's approach at the plate -- hands back, poke balls to right field -- spelled doom for the U.S.

"You know when you play them they're going to play fundamentally sound baseball," Roberts said. "We probably don't do as good a job of it as they do sometimes."

Beyond fundamentals, for the Japanese team the stream of singles seemed symbolic.

"I really didn't think there was any difference in abilities," manager Tatsunori Hara said. "But today, I felt somewhat that the Japanese team was able to concentrate more, perhaps, and was able to hang on a little bit more and had a little more spirit power."

In Japan, where the pressure to defend the 2006 WBC crown is intense, Sunday's game was a prize to be captured, a goal to be schemed.

"We came up with strategies," Hara said. "We were able to come up with a lot of variations in terms of strategies, and I believe that was apparent in today's game in terms of concentration."

Team USA played hard throughout the tournament, and the players spoke openly about how much it meant to each one of them to play for their national team.

"To put on that Team USA jersey, to be a part of this, it's such a blessing," Roberts said. "It was so awesome."

Against Puerto Rico, that feeling found its full expression.

On Sunday night, it was just the source of their disappointment.

"You want to win," DeRosa said. "It's frustrating. We just didn't go out there and perform tonight."

Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Eric Neel | email

Page 2 columnist
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

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