The pitching matchup said it all. United States starter Roger Clemens owns seven Cy Young Awards and a 3-0 record in six World Series. South Africa starter Carl Michaels plays in the Cape Town and the Western Province Summer leagues.
Two days after a stunning upset loss to Canada, the U.S. punched its ticket to the second round of the World Baseball Classic with a dominating 17-0 five-inning win over South Africa Friday afternoon at Scottsdale Stadium. Canada was eliminated from the tournament because it gave up more runs (15) than the U.S. (eight) and Mexico (three) in games between the three teams tied atop the Pool B standings.
A loss to South Africa Friday would have eliminated the U.S.
"I was as on edge as anyone because we were backed in a corner a little bit," Clemens said. "I don't care who it is you're facing. In this tournament, as you've seen already, anything can happen."
Banking on that concept, the South Africans skipped practice Thursday to screen the movie Miracle, which tells the story of the U.S. hockey team's upset of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics.
There would be no miracle though. Ken Griffey Jr. hit a pair of home runs and Derrek Lee left the yard once as the U.S. put up four runs in the first inning and six runs in each of the next two.
Chase Utley's two-out single through the right side of the infield brought home Alex Rodriguez and gave the U.S. the 15-run margin it needed in the third.
From there it was a matter of recording nine outs to invoke the five-inning mercy rule.
Clemens was up to the task. A stadium-record crowd of 11,975 turned up to watch what was likely the Rocket's last appearance in the state of Arizona.
They weren't disappointed as he plowed through the over-matched, awestruck South Africans. He surrendered one hit and came up two outs shy of a complete game when he was removed to a standing ovation.
He struck out six and walked none.
"I was kind of nervous when I woke up this morning knowing we were going to play the world's best," said 17-year-old South African relief pitcher Jared Elario. "This is like a dream come true to me . . . (Clemens is) my hero. To see him pitch, I couldn't believe it."
BONDS ON TEAM USA?
ESPN reported that embattled slugger Barry Bonds, who was met with boos from the crowd when he stepped out of the U.S. dugout in street clothes prior to Friday's game, has shown interest in joining the U.S. team. He would be eligible because he was on the team's 60-man preliminary roster.
U.S. manager Buck Martinez said Thursday that he was unlikely to alter his roster except in the case of injury. Martinez said Friday that Bonds' reported interest in joining a team he had already declined to be a part of was news to him.
"I haven't heard anything about it," Martinez said. "I've heard nothing but rumor around the ballpark and have not had any contact with anybody regarding that."
Though the expected eight teams advanced out of the first round, competition was not as one-sided or as predictable as many anticipated.
South Africa nearly upset Canada, which did upset the U.S. Korea knocked off Japan. Panama dragged Cuba into extra innings. Even European "powers" Italy and the Netherlands picked up wins.
Only China was obviously overmatched. "I think the caliber of baseball is much better across the board than we expected," Martinez said.
A SMALL WORLD
The fan who caught Jason Varitek's grand slam ball Wednesday night ended up at dinner with Martinez Thursday night.
Rather than hawking the ball on eBay, the fan gave it to Varitek in exchange for a bat. Thursday he went to his barber shop to show off the trophy. A stranger receiving a haircut at the time overheard the conversation and invited the fan to join he and Martinez for dinner that night.
"That was pretty spooky that would happen," Martinez said. "I mean, 10 minutes either way, he wouldn't know anything about it."
Martinez was asked Friday if it made a difference whether the U.S. advanced to Round 2 as the first or second seed. "After we lost to Canada, absolutely none," Martinez responded with a laugh. "We're just thrilled we have a chance to advance." . . . Hall of Famer Willie Mays threw out the ceremonial first pitch.