Monday, March 13, 2006

The World Baseball Classic, Strat-o-matically Speaking

If you’ve been following the World Baseball Classic, you’ve noted a variety of surprises. From bad play by predicted winners to thrilling performances by upstart scrappers to a no-hitter from an unlikely source, it’s been wildly entertaining if you’ve bothered to tune into the games. In much the same way, the “real” WBC played out in a crazy manner this weekend.

Yes, that’s right, we followed through with the threat to manage a Strat-o-matic WBC of our own this weekend. Rob came beachward with the three cases of beer that he owed me, and we hunkered down for a weekend of televised sports, bottled beers, and simulated baseball. (His wife and daughters joined mine for the weekend as well, but that was clearly secondary to the task at hand.) The dazzling smorgasbord of micro-brews provided by Rob (my micro-friend) matched the array of nationalities to be sorted and assembled. In the end, there were a few reaches on the rosters, but (a) so is Mike Piazza on Team Italy, (b) no Asian catchers played in the bigs in 2004, and (c) after 12 hours of drinking, they all made sense. I emphasize the alcohol consumption not merely because drinking has been the backdrop, if not the foundation of athletic contests since ancient Greek and Roman days, but also because it might help to explain some of the peculiar outcomes to the Strat-o-WBC.

The Teams
The usual suspects were all there, but when it came to filling out our eight-team pool, the executive management was a bit hamstrung. After all, quite a few of the WBC players you’ve been watching this spring are not on major league rosters. Some squads had to be mixed and matched just to field a team, and even then it was paper-thin. At times there were logical groupings (e.g., Team Asia had geographic commonality; Canada and Panama were combined because, obviously, they rhyme), while at other times it was a scramble (Mexicubombia was Leftover Soup). These were the eight clubs, in order of their seedings:

1. Dominican Republic
2. USA
3. Venezuela
4. Puerto Rico
5. Mexicubombia
6. Asia
7. Italy
8. Canama

The Set-Up
With our free time not what it was in the summer of ’90, when Rob and I each played out a 162-game schedule of the 1985 Red Sox and Mets, respectively, we were forced to sacrifice fairness and completeness in the name of completing the Classic in two days. Instead of the World Cup pool systems, we went with a standard eight-team single-elimination tournament. While we’d intended to have the finals be a 2-of-3 affair, that was truncated to a single contest. Alas, real life affecting Strat-o-matic games; the rest of the world needs to adjust its priorities, no?

The Outcome
Pitching and defense are what counts in baseball, and such was the case in the Strat-o-WBC. Credit good pitching or blame bad hitting, but when star-studded, power-laden line-ups can’t make bat meet ball, there’s no bailing out even the heaviest of favorites.

Game 1 - #1 Dominican Republic vs. #8 Canama
Pedro pitched well enough to win, relinquishing just three hits over 6+ innings, though two of those hits were homers. A batting order which includes names like Albert, Vlad, Papi, Manny, Miggy, and Adrian is (snickered at in grade school, but is) one that only needs moderate pitching to advance. In theory. Rich Harden, seemingly on a mission since the opening notes of “O, Canama,” utterly stifled the Dominicans for six innings before turning the ball over to Canamaniac relievers Mo Rivera and Eric Gagne. Though Rivera was tagged for back-to-back taters by Ortiz and Tejada, permitting the D.R. club just three runs overall was a coup. Meanwhile, Corey Koskie’s three-run job off Francisco Cordero, his second of the game, propelled underdog Canama to shocking victory. A stunning opener. Canama 7, D.R. 3

Game 2 - #4 Puerto Rico vs. #5 Mexicubombia
By far the sloppiest game of the round, at least in terms of managerial BAC, this game was a 2-1 barn-burner into the 7th. Joel Pineiro, in a mildly foreshadowing moment, handcuffed the Mexicubombians over six innings, while Rodrigo Lopez nearly matched him until a disastrous stretch in Bottom 7. Five consecutive “bombies” reached base, including Lopez’s Oriole battery mate Javy Lopez, whose Baltimore special incurred the most severe damage. Roberto Hernandez allowed a pair to score before closing the door on the win. [Most of this is guesswork, as the scoresheet looks somewhat hieroglyphic in the light of day.] Puerto Rico 7, Mexicubombia 3.

Game 3 - #3 Venezuela vs. #6 Asia
The Asians grabbed an early two-run lead on singles by Hideki Matsui and fan favorite Trent Durrington, but the Venezuelans put six on the board in the second and third to seize control. After Johan Santana calmed down, there was little Team Asia could do in the middle innings. Later in the game, however, Santana tired and K-Rod looked shaky; Matsui and Ichiro led a charge – they each finished with three hits – that sent the tying run to the plate in the top of the ninth. Alas, So Taguchi whiffed to end it before Japanese-born Dave Roberts could spark another team to dramatic victory. Venezuela 8, Asia 5.

Game 4 - #2 USA vs. #7 Italy
As if drawing confidence from the fine play of the tournament’s other underdogs, the scrappy Italians punched their way to a 3-0 lead through the top of the 2nd, taking advantage of Jake Peavy’s wildness and a two-run single by Paul LoDuca. Meanwhile, the U.S., as if learning from the hare-like napping of the D.R. earlier, awoke in the bottom of that frame, batted around, and plated six off Carl Pavano. Dan Miceli entered and held the Americans to just one more run, but the 7-3 lead looked comfortable. Too comfortable, as feisty Italy added two in the 5th and another in the 7th to trim the lead to one and send Peavy to the showers after a lackluster performance. Keith Foulke dodged a bullet and Brad Lidge closed it out in the final two innings to preserve the win and stave off the round's second enormous upset. USA 7, Italy 6.

Game 5 - #4 Puerto Rico vs. #8 Canama
Another squad not looking to repeat the mistakes of the Dominicans was the Puerto Rican club. After Javier Vazquez retired the side in order, striking out two, in the top of the 1st, Carlos Beltran started the bottom of the frame off with a double and ended it with a groundout. In between, there were singles and walks galore as P.R. scored four. Vazquez dominated early, allowing just a Matt Stairs solo shot by the Canamaniacs through six. When Carlos Lee doubled home Jason Bay and was subsequently splated by a Justin Morneau sac fly, however, the Puerto Rican manager reached for the nearest antacid, aka Sierra Nevada barleywine. (At 10% ABV, it’s twelve quick, cold ounces of middle relief.) Soon enough, though, J.C. Romero settled down Canama, and Jose Valentin pummeled a two-run dinger, ending the dream run of those Cinderellas from Canama City. Puerto Rico 6, Canama 3.

Game 6 - #2 USA vs. #3 Venezuela
Roger Clemens took the hill for the U.S., giving a kind of confidence to their skipper that is usually reserved for folks named Custer and Steinbrenner. Sure enough, five batters into the game, the Americans trailed by a 3-0 margin, thanks to a Miguel Cabrera double and a Magglio Ordonez home run. Clemens finally stopped trying to figure out what the nickname “Venezuelan Jennings” meant and went to work, allowing a handful of hits but keeping any further runs from crossing. Meanwhile, the ever-fading US bats struggled to produce runs. A Jim Thome (who was a candidate for the ill-fated French team) double scored Jason Varitek in the 5th, and solo shots by Adam Dunn and Jeff Kent helped them break through and knot it up in the 6th. In the bottom of the 8th, Lance Berkman doubled on a pitch from Ugie Urbina to score pinch-runner Juan Pierre (also a Team France guy) with the go-ahead run. Joe Nathan snuffed out Team V. in the 9th without incident. A hard-fought win, but the hitting woes set the stage for an otherwise startling result the next day. USA 4, Venezuela 3.

Game 7 – The WBC Final - #2 USA vs. #4 Puerto Rico
Randy Johnson took the mound for the Americans in the final, taking on Joel Pineiro and the Puerto Ricans. While the Big Eunuch had gone through a painful 2004 of allowing next to zero runs but getting absolutely zero in support, he would be backed up this go-around by this line-up:

Jeter SS
Varitek C
Helton 1B
Thome DH
Dunn LF
Edmonds CF
Berkman RF
Rolen 3B
Kent 2B
(Kind of makes you wonder why Matt Holliday, Vernon Wells, and Michael Barrett are starting games for the US in the real world, huh?)

Anyway, for all of that power in the line-up, the game still takes shrewd management (a little) and luck (a lot). The Americans got an abundance of the former and not a whit of the latter. Joel Pineiro cruised, walking a few here and there but escaping damage. At the same time, Randy Johnson mowed down the Puerto Ricans like an out-of-control El Camino, save one. In a performance to be duplicated in a World Series in the near future, Carlos Beltran recorded the only two hits for his team. Fortunately for the P.R. squad, one was a home run.

Meanwhile, Pineiro was unhittable. Literally. The U.S. hadn’t notched a single hit when Pineiro walked the bases full with one out in the 8th. Then Helton popped up and Thome fanned, perpetuating the dearth of hits and nearing the brink. After Brad Lidge eliminated a threat in the 9th, the Yanks (not those Yanks, though their line-up may look like this before too long) garnered a two-out walk, but Scott (0-for-the-WBC) Rolen grounded weakly to third to seal the no-hitter for Joel Pineiro. Read that again: Joel Pineiro no-hit the American team to win the Strat-o-World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico. Yikes. Puerto Rico 1, USA 0.

What have we learned? The lessons are plentiful.
1. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.
2. The tortoise and hare story has real-life examples.
3. Randy Johnson’s bad luck follows him everywhere.
4. “On paper” is a silly expression best left to instructions for housebreaking dogs.
5. Total Wine really is an adult candy store.
6. Carlos Beltran is poised for an amazing year.
7. ARod was banned because of his wishy-washy Dominican/American status. Barry Bonds was banned because of the obvious controversy surrounding his being an enormous jackass. The US could have definitely used them both, and yet nobody complained afterwards.
8. There is a better brand of baseball being played in Canama and Mexicubombia than anyone had ever thought, I promise you.
9. Despite playing the advanced version, we could not account for some factors, like park size, day versus night, and turf versus grass; our games were played at night in a standard park on natural grass, and the dizzying outcomes reflect that.
10. A handful of injuries were sustained, including a pair of serious wounds to Canama’s best players against D.R. (making their win even more heroic); unlike any experienced in the “real” WBC, these will have no effects upon regular-season play, which is why this method is, in fact, the best approach to determining the world’s best baseball team.

Congrats to Team Puerto Rico. There’s little chance the guys on your television will be able to match the excitement of our tournament, but it’s probably still worth watching just in case.

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