GLENDALE, Ariz. -- This is the third running of the World Baseball Classic and the third time Adrian Gonzalez is leaving his Major League club to play for Team Mexico. The allure for the Dodgers first baseman is simple.
"It's just a big thing for me to play for my country," said Gonzalez, who along with teammate Luis Cruz, will slide over from the Dodgers side of the Camelback Ranch training complex to join Team Mexico when they open camp here on Monday.
Gonzalez, now beginning his first full season with the Dodgers after the Aug. 25 mega-trade that brought him to Los Angeles from Boston, will be joined by his brother, Edgar. Dodger great Fernando Valenzuela is the pitching coach on the staff of manager Rick Renteria, a Padres coach.
"To me, this is something that comes around now every four years," Gonzalez said. "It's always exciting. We're getting ready to go into it now. It's getting to the point where all the adrenalin is really kicking in."
The fact that Team Mexico is in the Arizona pool again with Team USA, Team Canada, and this time Italy, really makes the competition quite fascinating. Mexico opens the round-robin bracket by playing its first game against Italy on Thursday at 1 p.m. MT at Salt River Fields.
But all eyes are on Friday's 7 p.m. MT start for Mexico against the U.S. at Chase Field. According to officials, that game is already generating the most attention of the weekend. Anticipating a big walkup throng at the ticket windows, it could draw in excess of 40,000, about 40 percent of the 100,000 expected for the six games here, four of them in the retractable-roofed home of the D-backs in downtown Phoenix.
Although Renteria has yet to announce his pitching matchups for the pool, it's probably safe to say that he'll save Brewers tough right-hander Yovani Gallardo to start against the U.S., if he's healthy For the Americans, their No. 1 starter is Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, the reigning Cy Young Award winner in the National League prior to his offseason trade by the Mets to Toronto.
"We've got a great team. We've got great pitching," Gonzalez said of Team Mexico. "We've got a great group of guys, guys who can move around a little bit on defense and guys who are going to be able to put the ball in play. From my experience, as long as you don't strike out you give yourself a chance.
"Every team is good. It's going to come down to who plays the best. That's why Japan has won both times. They've been able to play great baseball, especially when it counts."
One thing is certain: whether it's in the Pam Am Games, the Olympics or the Classic, Mexico always gives the U.S. fits. Twice in the past decade, Mexico has knocked Team USA out of an international tournament.
In the single-elimination quarterfinals of the 2003 Olympic qualifiers for the Athens summer games played in Panama City, Panama, the score was tied, 1-1, heading into the ninth inning when Mexico's Luis A. Garcia homered off U.S. right-hander Brian Bruney to give Mexico the lead. In the bottom of the inning, a star-studded U.S. club of future Major Leaguers generated a rally, putting runners on first and second with no one out.
Frank Robinson, who was managing that team, opted to pinch-hit for Ernie Young, the team's best hitter that year, with the left-handed Joe Mauer. Robinson had Mauer bunt the runners over. Mexico played the infield back, conceding the tying run. But Justin Leone bounced back to the box and Gerald Laird popped out. The U.S. lost, 2-1, and never made it to Athens.
Three years later in the inaugural Classic, the U.S. and Mexico were in the Arizona bracket with Canada and South Africa. In the opener played before a raucous crowd of 32,727 at Chase that included many flag-waving Mexico fans, the U.S. won, 2-0, behind the pitching of Jake Peavy and homers by Derrek Lee and Chipper Jones. As is anticipated again this year, both teams made it out of the bracket and headed to Angel Stadium in Anaheim along with Japan and Korea.
In Anaheim, Mexico again proved to be the final obstacle for the Americans, who had already lost in that pool to Korea. Though Roger Clemens was on the mound, the U.S. couldn't generate any offense. Trailing again, 2-1, and with runners on first and second and one out in the ninth inning, Vernon Wells bounced into a double play, eliminating the U.S.
Japan, Mexico and the U.S. all finished 1-2 in the bracket, but Japan won out because it scored five more runs than the U.S. The second round rules have since been changed to a double-elimination affair and will be in force this year when the scene switches to Miami's Marlins Park and Tokyo Dome. Under the current format, the Japanese would have been eliminated in that 2006 round because of previous losses to the U.S. and Korea. Mexico was already gone heading into that final game against the U.S. Instead, Japan went on to win the tournament.
But make no mistake about it, the U.S. could have avoided all that by simply defeating Mexico.
In the 2009 Classic, Mexico and the U.S. were in separate brackets so the long-time rivals that share a border thousands of miles long didn't play each other. Team Mexico went to San Diego with Japan, Korea and Cuba and again didn't make it out of the second round. The U.S. lost a semifinal game at Dodger Stadium to Japan, which defeated Korea to win for the second time.
This time, the goal for the U.S. is to win it all. For Mexico, it's at least to make it to San Francisco where the semifinals and final game is slated for March 17-19, Gonzalez said. That quest for both teams begins on Friday night when the rivalry will be renewed. Even old nemesis Luis A. Garcia is back on the Mexican roster.
"It's going to be fun," Gonzalez said. "We played them twice in the 2006 Baseball Classic. They beat us the first time and we beat them the second time. Those games are always going to be competitive and full of energy."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.