By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
ANAHEIM, Calif., March 13 -- As the United States team's last few precious outs ticked away Monday night, its bench was empty, save for a couple of bored security guards. The entire team, millionaire by millionaire, was on the top step of the dugout, leaning on the railing, trying to will a rally that would never come. Perhaps at some point they gazed across the diamond at the Korean players, congregating on their own top step, poised to rush the field in victory.
Do you believe in miracles? Surely, they are asking themselves that question in Korea, following the country's shocking -- and shockingly thorough -- 7-3 victory over the vaunted U.S. squad in the second round of the World Baseball Classic before 21,288 at Angel Stadium.
Korea, which opened the WBC as a 20-1 or 30-1 long shot with most bookmakers -- while the U.S. team was the favorite at 6-5 or even money -- is the only team still undefeated in the tournament, while the U.S. team once again finds itself in the position of requiring a win, and some help, to advance.
The United States, with one win and one loss in the second round, must beat Mexico on Thursday -- when the Americans will have ace Roger Clemens on the mound -- then hope it comes out ahead in the tournament's bizarre tiebreak criteria, the first of which is runs allowed.
As such, the United States might come to regret the three-run homer that Houston Astros reliever Dan Wheeler gave up in the fourth inning to Korea's Hee Seop Choi, pushing Korea's lead to 6-1, and the run Korea scored off Mike Timlin in the sixth to make it 7-1. Each run Korea tacked on damaged the U.S. hopes not only in this game, but in the overall tournament.
Despite ample opportunities, the United States did nothing that could have been described as clutch against the Koreans, with their collection of mysterious, submarine-style pitchers.
Jason Varitek struck out with the bases loaded to end the first, and Vernon Wells did the same -- against Byung Hyun Kim, the former World Series gopher-ball artist of the Arizona Diamondbacks -- in the fourth. With two on in the fifth, Chipper Jones grounded into an inning-ending double play.
Alex Rodriguez -- mockingly labeled "Mr. March" in a back-page tabloid headline in New York after his broken-bat, ninth-inning single lifted the United States over Japan on Sunday -- came to the plate four times Monday night with two runners on base, and all four times he failed to hit the ball out of the infield although he did have an RBI groundout in the ninth.
But the offense was hardly the only shortcoming for the United States. Its defense committed three errors. Starting pitcher Dontrelle Willis could not seem to locate the plate, absorbing his second consecutive loss in the tournament.
The United States had long since stopped assuming that victory in the World Baseball Classic was their birthright, having been frightened by Mexico, vanquished by Canada and pushed to its limit by Japan. But Korea? Most of the Americans could probably only name two Korean ballplayers, big league veterans Choi and Byung Hyun Kim.
Because the Korean starting lineup contains no fewer than four players named Lee, the U.S. team referred to them, in scouting reports and pregame meetings, by their uniform numbers. The one to pay special attention to, U.S. pitchers were told, was the one known as "25."
First baseman Seung Yeop Lee, number 25 in your program, is a strapping 30-year-old known in his native land as the "Lion King." By the time he turned 26 in 2003, he was already a legend in Asia, hitting 56 homers that season for the Samsung Lions to break legendary Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh's all-Asia record. With 324 career homers by that point, he was said to be the youngest player in the world to reach 300. He won five MVP awards in nine seasons in Korea before moving to the Japanese Pacific League in 2004.
On Monday night, when Lee came to the plate in the top of the first inning to face Willis with the bases empty, he was already the offensive star of the tournament, with four homers and nine RBI in his first four games. And when he smashed Willis's first pitch some 400 feet over the wall in right-center field, those numbers were five and 10.
The next two times Lee came to the plate, the United States walked him -- pitching around him when he led off the third, then walking him intentionally with a runner on second and two outs in the fourth -- and both times the strategy backfired.
In the third, Lee came around to score on an RBI groundout -- putting Korea ahead, 3-1 -- and in the fourth, Choi, pinch-hitting for Tae Kyun Kim, connected on a towering three-run homer off Wheeler that nestled in the right field corner just inside the foul pole.