Team USA finds much in its favor

Loaded Team USA finds much in Classic in its favor

PHOENIX -- This is a tournament for Team USA to lose.

Given the talent, given the expectations, given the fact that the U.S. is hosting four of the seven pools and given the fact that the U.S. won't have to face any of the tough Latin American teams until the final game on March 20 in San Diego's PETCO Park, everything is stacked in Team USA's favor for next month's World Baseball Classic.

That's why if Team USA doesn't succeed, the question will be why it didn't. Team USA manager Buck Martinez understands the expectations.

"This is big stuff for our team," Martinez said. "There's no doubt about it. I have no hesitations to say that our team is really enthusiastic and that we know what the expectations are. We can't wait to get going."

If you can follow the bouncing brackets, while highly touted Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela all battle it out in the east, the U.S. has to win two out of three in the first round in Arizona against Canada, Mexico and South Africa.

If they accomplish that, the Americans and another team from their pool would go on to the second round in Anaheim, where they would face the two winners of the Asian pool, made up of Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei and China. The two winners there will play in the semifinals at PETCO Park on March 18. Thus, three of the tough Latin teams will be gone before the finals.

Lucky U.S. Now, all the Americans have to do is get there. To the finals, that is.

Baseball in the U.S.
Whether Abner Doubleday invented it or the game was hatched on a field in Hoboken, New Jersey, there's no doubt that baseball is an American contrivance that dates back to the 1830s. The modern Major League era began in 1900, and internationally, the one U.S. claim to fame is its gold medal victory over Cuba in the 2000 Summer Olympics. This is the first time, though, that Major Leaguers of any stripe are playing in an international tournament.

Projected lineup and likely starting pitchers for this pool:
Johnny Damon LF, Derek Jeter SS, Ken Griffey Jr. CF, Alex Rodriguez 3B, Chipper Jones DH, Derrek Lee 1B, Jason Varitek C, Vernon Wells RF, Michael Young 2B

Starters: Jake Peavy, Dontrelle Willis and Roger Clemens

Strengths: Considering rules on pitch counts (65-80-95 as the rounds progress) and spacing between appearances, the U.S. went with a 14-man pitching staff, including 10 relievers picked from among the Majors' best and brightest: Billy Wagner, Chad Cordero, Huston Street, Joe Nathan, Scot Shields, Mike Timlin, Dan Wheeler, Brian Fuentes, Brad Lidge and Todd Jones. Each is either the closer or key setup man for his respective Major League team. Some -- like Nathan, Timlin, Shields, Wheeler and Lidge -- have pitched in the World Series. Add the starters -- Peavy, Willis, Clemens and C.C. Sabathia -- and the U.S. has the deepest staff of any of the 14 teams. The lineup is no slouch, either, with All-Stars at every starting position and a few more on the bench. It could be argued that no team in history has been deeper in all categories, including the yearly teams from each league that appear in the midsummer All-Star Games.

Country Information
Here are some things you may not know about each of the 16 countries taking part in the first World Baseball Classic.
United States
Population:270 million
Capital:Washington, D.C.
Popular Sports:Baseball, football, basketball, NASCAR
Favorite Foods:Hot dogs, hamburgers, apple pie
Favorite Music:Rock, rap, jazz
Famous Athletes:Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong, Tom Brady, Barry Bonds
Fun Fact:Arizona just celebrated its 93rd birthday and was the last of the 48 contiguous states to be granted statehood

Weaknesses: "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical." When Yogi Berra said that, he might as well have been talking about the U.S. baseball team that will start play next week in the Classic. All these guys have to worry about is getting up for the tournament. They have all the tools. The question now is the mental approach. There's incredible enthusiasm in the Latin countries and in Asia for this tournament. The Dominicans will wrap themselves in the national flag. And if regular-season games in the Tokyo Dome are any indication, fans of the four teams will inhabit different portions of the stadium, wave flags and maintain a gentle roar while their team is at the plate. The fans won't help the hometown U.S. in Arizona, where loyalties are well spread out among the 12 Cactus League teams. The pride of winning must certainly come from within.

Keep an eye on: A-Rod. He had a tough choice determining whether to play for the Dominicans, the country of his heritage, or the U.S., the country of his birth. He struggled mightily this past October in a first-round playoff series that the Yankees lost to the Angels in five games, batting .133 (2-for-15) with no homers and no RBIs. He's the top paid player in the game at $25 million per year, and he has a lot to prove.

Big Question: Clemens. Admittedly, the strength of his legs is lagging behind his magnificent right throwing arm at this point, and that's where he gets his power. If the legs aren't strong -- he ended the postseason with a severely torn hamstring -- he won't have that steam in his pitches. But his first test will be against South Africa. Imagine that.

Quotable: "Make no mistake about it, when we get second and third and there's one out, we're going to dial up a fastball that's quicker than we're normally throwing. It's not like Spring Training, where you can give up four, five runs." -- Clemens

They'll advance if ... They play on most of their cylinders. Mexico and Canada should be formidable opponents, and South Africa a scrimmage. Mexico always gives the U.S. trouble in international play -- the U.S. is 2-1 with all three games coming down to the final inning the last three times the teams have played in Olympic qualifying. Canada is up and coming. The U.S. should be able to win at least two of the games.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.