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WBC has one big problem: It doesn’t matter

By ROGER MOONEY

rmooney@bradenton.com

PORT CHARLOTTE

The score could have been tied when J.P. Howell faced Akinori Iwamura during Sunday’s World Baseball Classic semifinal, and Iwamura could have lined a double off the left field wall that led to the winning run, and Howell would have been disappointed — but not crushed.

Pat Burrell’s double off the left field wall that led to the winning run in the deciding game of last year’s World Series? Now that still haunts Howell and will for some time.

But being part of Team USA, which lost to Japan in the WBC semis?

“I already forgot about it,” Howell said Wednesday after returning to the Tampa Bay Rays’ spring training camp.

It was a great experience, Howell quickly added. He was happy to be a part of it; proud to wear the red, white and blue for his country. He’d love to do it again if asked.

But the intensity of playing against other countries in an actual world-wide tournament didn’t come close to pitching the Rays past the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox last October and to the World Series.

And the sting of losing to Japan and falling short of one world title doesn’t come close to the sting of allowing that double to Burrell and watching the Philadelphia Phillies celebrate.

“No chance,” Howell said. “That still eats me up. It’s . . . no way, no chance.”

The WBC is a wonderful concept. Taking the best players from the best baseball-playing countries and letting them play until one emerges as the winner.

It’s the practice that’s lousy.

At least here in the United States.

Howell, one of the anchors of the Rays’ bullpen, was not even close to being in top pitching shape during the WBC. It wasn’t until Sunday’s semifinal that he felt comfortable with throwing all his pitches. Until then, he was strictly fastball, fastball, fastball, and he wasn’t concerned if those fastballs were hit.

Once Florida pitcher Matt Lindstrom injured his shoulder during the WBC, Howell decided he wasn’t going to go full-throttle.

“I have to be ready for April 6,” Howell said of the Rays’ season-opener in Boston.

Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, who joined Team USA in time for the semifinal loss to Japan, noticed his teammates holding back just a tad. Given the injuries suffered by Chipper Jones, whom he replaced on the roster, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, you can see why.

“We’re really just preparing ourselves for this season, so I think there is, I don’t want to say a lot, but there is definitely some holding back as far as how hard guys can play and how much guys can do,” Longoria said. “You don’t want to go out there and hurt yourself and then sit on the bench for the first two months of your own season.”

It’s no surprise the teams from Japan and Korea took the WBC more seriously than the others. They were out to prove that their brand of baseball and their baseball players were the best.

Howell noticed the intensity when he faced Iwamura on Sunday. The two had hugged and laughed before the game, but it was different when Iwamura stepped into the batter’s box later that night.

“Before the at-bat I gave him a smirk and he didn’t give me one back,” Howell said.

USA was losing at the time, and Howell got Iwamura to fly out to left field.

But even if the game had been on the line and Howell allowed the hit that turned the game in favor of Japan, Howell said he would have an easier time dealing with it than the double he allowed to Burrell in Game 5 of the World Series.

“I would feel more guilt,” Howell said. “I would feel bad for my country, for the guys who worked to put this whole thing together, because they worked really hard to put it together. That’s about it.”

American players treat the WBC as an extended All-Star Game. Bigger games loom for them once they return to their teams.

Nothing wrong with that, but that’s what’s wrong with the WBC.

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