Respect universal in World Classic

Teams trade praise on eve of openers in U.S.


ORLANDO, Fla. -- There are plenty of questions surrounding the inaugural World Baseball Classic, which opens in earnest today with games in Florida, Arizona and Puerto Rico.

One thing already has been established, however. There's apparently no trash talking in international competition.

"I don't have any favorite team in particular. I think they are all pretty good," said the Orioles' Javy Lopez, who will play first base and designated hitter for Puerto Rico. "And like I have been telling everybody, it doesn't matter how good of a team you are. All that matters is who is going to get hot at the moment. In a short series like that, anybody can get hot and beat anybody."

The United States is considered the favorite in the 16-team tournament, followed closely by the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Japan, Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Each nation plays three games in the initial round, with two clubs advancing from each of four pools. Those winners will play in a second round-robin set, with two teams from each of the two second-round groups advancing to the four-team semifinals.

Then it becomes single elimination to get into the championship contest, which is March 20 at 9 p.m. in San Diego. All told, the winner will have played eight games in three weeks.

The United States probably has the easiest route to the title game. The Americans won't have to face the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba or Puerto Rico until the finale. Their stiffest competition in the first round is Mexico and Canada, with Japan and Korea already having advanced to Round 2. That's not a bad draw for a squad that includes Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and a host of other All-Stars.

"They are going to be good. They are Major League Baseball. They have all major league players," said Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada, who plays for the Dominican Republic. "They have Jeter, A-Rod, [Johnny] Damon, [Ken] Griffey. But the best team is not the one that looks good outside the field. It's the one that looks good on the field."

The United States is the most balanced team, with a solid offense, defense and pitching staff. Its top three starters -- Clemens, Dontrelle Willis and Jake Peavy -- are impressive, although the most formidable starting staff probably belongs to Venezuela, which has Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano and Freddy Garcia.

Pitching, as always, will make the biggest difference. That was evident in Pool A, played in Japan last week. The Japanese scored 32 runs in their first two games against China and Chinese Tapei, but then lost to top-seeded Korea, 3-2, in the third game. Korea, with a pitching staff of six major leaguers, allowed just three runs in three wins.

What should distinguish the U.S. team from the other countries is its middle and late relief. While most other clubs have to use fringe major leaguers to fill out their staffs, the Americans are loaded with quality late-inning arms, including Brad Lidge, Joe Nathan, Chad Cordero and Huston Street.

That will be important since the Classic has established pitch counts (65 for the first round; 80 for the second and 95 for the semifinals and finals), limiting the importance of starting pitching.

"I know there is a rule with the pitch counts," said Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo. "So I think the team with the stronger pitching after the starters is the one that is going to be the favorite."

While the U.S. should cruise into the semifinals virtually untested, the Dominican and Venezuelan teams could face each other three times before one reaches the finals. Their first clash is today at 1 p.m. at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex.

Initially, the Dominican Republic looked to be the most formidable of all entrants, but stars Pedro Martinez (toe), Vladimir Guerrero (personal reasons) and Manny Ramirez (Manny being Manny) have dropped out. Still, it's deep enough to remain a top contender.

"For them, [Martinez, Guerrero and Ramirez] may be a big loss," said Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez, who plays for Venezuela. "But I think it is going to be like, `OK, we'll put this guy there and he might do the same job that those guys could do.'"

Other countries also have seen stars decline invitations, including Barry Bonds (U.S.), Mariano Rivera (Panama), Melvin Mora (Venezuela) and Jose Vidro (Puerto Rico).

The wild card in the tournament is Cuba, an international powerhouse that is a virtual mystery personnel-wise.

"I see a lot of Venezuela guys, so I think the team I really want to see is Cuba because it's a team we never see," Tejada said. "And that is something I am looking forward to."

Washington Nationals ace Livan Hernandez, a former Cuban national team member who defected to the United States in 1995, believes Cuba will emerge from the first round. But it won't advance further because the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have more talent, he said.

Hernandez can't pitch for his homeland because Cuban President Fidel Castro has banned defectors from playing in the Classic.

"It's difficult for us," Hernandez said. "You want to play because there is a lot of talent there and it is a professional tournament. If I can do it one day, I will feel happy."

For many within baseball, the Classic is considered a spring training inconvenience. But it is here now. And players and officials alike say they will tune in.

"I'll be watching the games and rooting for the USA," Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. "I hope they win it all just for the pride and bragging rights."

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