Commentary

Team USA handling its surroundings

Americans prove they can win in different ways at WBC

Updated: March 9, 2009, 10:14 AM ET
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

TORONTO -- It was an 87 mph fastball thrown by a 25-year-old Venezuelan right-hander who's never sniffed the major leagues. And when Adam Dunn saw it, he smoked it, and then a small smirk pursed his lips as he looked into his home dugout.

"I thought that was going to hit the top of the dome," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said.

It didn't reach that high, but Dunn's mammoth shot to right field in the seventh inning of this World Baseball Classic game seemed to be the punctuation mark in Team USA's 15-6 win over Venezuela on Sunday night. The Americans will be advancing to the second round of this tournament, and in their first two games, they've proved they can win close in a hostile, playoff-like atmosphere in a packed dome and via blowout before 13,000 people, most of whom were yelling, whistling and waving flags in support of Venezuela.

On Saturday, it was J.J. Putz who closed a 6-5 win against Team Canada in front of a raucous, pro-Canada home crowd at the Rogers Centre, a scene that led Putz to say it was the most intense experience of his baseball career. A night later, it was a cumulative effort by a Team USA lineup that pumped out 16 hits and 15 runs against seven Venezuelan pitchers.

The Americans have bonded over this past week, and center fielder Curtis Granderson spoke wistfully about their ritual of running out of the dugout as someone crosses the plate and greeting those teammates as if they all were still in Little League.

[+] EnlargeAdam Dunn
Tom Szczerbowski/US PresswireAdam Dunn's monstrous homer was just one part of Team USA's display of power on Sunday.

"I have no idea how this has happened," Dunn said of the Americans' cohesiveness. "It feels like we've been together for a long time. I don't know if that's the way they designed it, but it's just a bunch of great guys that get along. It's amazing."

Before he went to the plate, Dunn told his teammates he was going to homer. He knew Shane Victorino was getting loose, ready to replace him. So Dunn told his teammates he wanted to go out with a bang. When he took poor Ivan Blanco deep, it added to the USA lead, which had been padded by an eight-run outburst an inning before.

Dunn's teammates jumped up from their seats in the dugout, seemingly laughing at the absurdity of it all. It just looked too easy.

And who cares about the Americans' failure in 2006, when, in 2009, they've won close and they've won big and they've won, both times, when the crowd was clearly in favor of their opponents?

"I know [the 2006 team] went to the second round," Pedroia said when asked to compare the two teams. "And we're in the second round now too, right?"

At first, it seemed Sunday's game would be close. Armando Galarraga, a member of the Detroit Tigers and Venezuela's starter for the game, pitched four solid innings and gave up just two runs. But the weakness of this Venezuelan team is its bullpen. And manager Luis Sojo did not hold back after the game.

"We all know that maybe the bullpen is the big question mark with us," Sojo said. "And it looked like a disaster."

[+] EnlargeKevin Youkilis
AP Photo/Frank GunnTeam USA has bonded quickly as it moves to erase the failures of the 2006 team.

Sojo continued.

"This can't happen, and I'm really upset," he said. "And they should know it, because they know, as professionals, their job is to throw strikes. And they weren't doing their job."

By the end of the night, the Venezuelan crowd was so frustrated by the lack of arms that it was chanting, in Spanish, at Sojo, asking the manager to take the mound.

It was an ironic bookend to a day that started with far more hope for the Venezuelans. It began when a group of players, including Magglio Ordonez, Bobby Abreu and Miguel Cabrera, and Sojo spoke to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on his weekly Sunday morning TV show. They called in and, on speaker phone, got words of encouragement from Chavez, who ended the call by saying, "Viva Venezuela! Viva beisbol! Viva Luis Sojo!"

It's been written and said myriad times how embarrassed Team USA was three years ago when it lost in the second round. USA bullpen coach Mel Stottlemyre said before the opener of this WBC that America invented baseball and it was time to show why it's his country's game.

So far, in the first two games, Team USA has done just that.

"Winning these games, it brings your team together," Pedroia said. "Because we're going to have some tough games ahead of us, and it's a lot easier to have each other's back."

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.