USA's exit from WBC stuns, disappoints others in field

Saturday, March 18, 2006

SAN DIEGO -- The stage for the World Baseball Classic semifinals is a picturesque new major league ballpark, where a sign in left-center field reads "America's Pastime" and high rises typical of so many U.S. cities serve as a backdrop.

Animated flags representing all 16 countries that took part in the inaugural tournament waved on the main video board above the bleachers -- and that's as close as the United States came to participating in the WBC on Friday at Petco Park.

Ichiro Suzuki and Japan, not Team USA, went through workouts and batting practice one day after the U.S. squad loaded with All-Stars lost 2-1 to Mexico to be eliminated from the tournament.

"This is up there with anything that I've ever done," said U.S. pitcher Jake Peavy of the Padres, who would have been the U.S. starter for the semifinals in his home stadium. "It's disheartening. There's a lot of emotional guys in the clubhouse. It's not easy to deal with."

The Americans weren't the only ones shocked by their early exit in an event they were expected to win.

Japan advanced thanks to Mexico's hard-fought victory against seven-time Cy Young award winner Roger Clemens, and Japanese manager Sadaharu Oh received good-luck wishes Friday from his Mexican counterpart, Paquin Estrada.

"I didn't really watch the game, I only wanted to know the result," Ichiro said through a translator in an interview with The Associated Press, after spending a relaxing day in right field shagging fly balls with cameras clicking at his every move. "Those players on both teams are my colleagues. I didn't want to see them fail. The reason the WBC event is held is to show something like this."

Cuba and the Dominican Republic will face off in today's first semifinal game and Japan will play archrival and unbeaten South Korea in the night game for a spot in the championship Monday.

A large contingent of Japanese media frantically changed their flights home from Anaheim to include a stop in San Diego.

"I was really surprised the American team lost to the Mexican team," Oh said. "We thought the Americans would be the world's best. When we lost in the second round, we didn't think we'd be playing here."

When the WBC was still in the planning stages last year, nobody would have bargained for a semifinal weekend without the United States.

"I won't say surprised but I'm kind of disappointed," said 70-year-old San Francisco skipper Felipe Alou, a native of the Dominican Republic whose son and right fielder, Moises, is playing for the Dominicans.

"When the good teams played they were very close games. Pitching dominated. When that happens anyone, including the U.S., can get beat," he said. "I believe that if it happens again with this kind of tournament, some of the people including the players who didn't believe it was serious will have to believe now that it is serious."

The U.S. roster featured New York Yankees superstars Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, Cincinnati's Ken Griffey Jr., Atlanta's Chipper Jones and Cubs' slugger Derrek Lee -- to name a few. Manager Buck Martinez was even considering inviting San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds to join the mix as an injury replacement considering the slugger had already been on the preliminary roster.

Some of those in the majors, left Friday to figure out what went wrong for their countrymen, figure the results might have been different if the tournament was played later in the year when players had found their groove -- rather than early in spring training.

That's something commissioner Bud Selig has said would be difficult because players don't want this event to interfere with baseball's 162-game schedule.

"Most people have to realize that our guys here for the U.S. aren't in shape and playing," Gary Matthews Sr., the Cubs' first base coach, said before Chicago played the Giants in Scottsdale, Ariz. "You let them play those same teams and face those same pitchers once they've been together and seen breaking balls and so on it would be a different game. Again you have to give credit where credit was due. They were outplayed."

In Mexico, the victory over the United States all but made up for Mexico's loss to the Americans in the 2002 World Cup, a heartbreaking day for the prideful, soccer-crazed country.

"It was an authentic revenge," said Braulio Herrera, a 19-year-old waiter at the Angus steakhouse in Mexico City's touristy Zona Rosa neighborhood. "Now it's 1 to 1."

AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Associated Press Writer Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this story.

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