In my original preview of Team USA and Pool C, I said that the difference maker was going to be U.S. manager Davey Johnson. My assumption at the time, looking at the construction of the USA's roster and reading about how the U.S. was eager to correct its Round 2 exit in 2006, was that Johnson, a Hall of Fame-worthy manager who also managed the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing last year (winning bronze), was brought in to focus the team's resolve. He was going to make Team USA a winner, not just a All-Star team putting on an exhibition.
Sadly, things didn't work out that way. Though team USA did survive to the semi-finals, their three losses along the way came in games in which Johnson prioritized his starting pitchers' workloads over their effectiveness. He also alternated his stars at shortstop, catcher, and center field instead of basing his lineup on performance and the opposition.
It was disappointing to see Johnson and his team phone in the seeding game in Round 1, but that game was largely meaningless anyway, so it wasn't a great offense. When Johnson let Jake Peavy put the first game of Round 2 out of reach early, however, I, as well as many others, were appalled. Facing a single-elimination rematch against Puerto Rico, Johnson started his weaker defensive shortstop, who wiffed on a pair of balls to his left that nearly accounted for the difference in the game, and refused to pinch-hit for his lefty-hitting catcher with his righty-hitting catcher for fear of having to forfiet because he also refused to play another player out of position if the second (and final) catcher on his roster got hurt.
Team USA survived that game due to a tremendous ninth-inning comeback, but again phoned in the seeding game. In tonight's single-elimination semifinal against Japan, Johnson again started his weaker shortstop in the field because of his alternating-games approach, and though the run Japan scored on Derek Jeter's throwing error didn't matter in the end, it proved that, even in the semifinals of this tournament, Johnson refused to put winning ahead of his attempts to maintain the spring-training routines of his players. Even more damning was the USA's failure to fill two roster spots made vacant by injuries.
I don't believe any of that had to do with why the U.S. lost this game, but it needs to change in 2012 or the USA might as well withdraw its entry in this tournament as it's making a mockery of what has otherwise been a thrilling, compelling, and flat-out fun event.
Some are going to accuse Johnson of letting Roy Oswalt get his work in tonight as he gave up five runs in the fourth inning. I didn't see it that way (though admittedly liveblogging is not terribly conducive to reflection and analysis as you're so busy typing, formatting, spell checking, and publishing). Remember, Oswalt threw a 1-2-3 first inning and a seven-pitch third inning. Though he gave up two singles to start the fourth, the first run scored on Brian Roberts' error, after which another scored on an out. Though two runs were in at that point, Oswalt was hardly getting hit hard. You could argue that in a single-elimination game, he should have been pulled after Akinori Iwamura's triple, but he only pitched to three batters after that, one of whom he retired. That doesn't really smack of a pitcher getting his work in.
With Japan up 6-2, the game was pretty much iced at that point. The U.S. staged a comeback in the top of the eighth, cutting Japan's lead in half, but the American defense gave it all back plus one in the bottom of the inning on Jeter's error and a misplay by Adam Dunn in right field. That's on the team, not Johnson. The USA got beat tonight, and when they finally looked capable of coming back, they beat themselves. Only Jimmy Rollins (4-for-4 with a walk while trapped at DH), Brian McCann (three walks in four trips), and the team's three lefty relievers really came through.
Congratulations to Japan for making the WBC finals for the second time in as many tournaments. The final between Japan and Korea tomorrow night should be a memorable one. I'll have a preview of it on SI.com tomorrow afternoon and I'll be back to liveblog it tomorrow night. See you then . . .