TAMPA — If you were looking for some fleeting, peripheral amusement as a media member in Tampa over the last few days, you could have asked Yankees manager Joe Girardi if he were rooting for the United States in the World Baseball Classic. It was an impossible question for him to answer truthfully.
On the one hand, it’s not exactly the smartest decision for the manager of the New York Yankees to go on record as saying, “I am cheering against the United States of America.” On the other hand: Derek Jeter is the only Yankee left in the WBC, and Girardi would desperately like him back to make his team (mostly) complete. (Alex Rodriguez is rehabbing.) And considering the lingering injuries second baseman Robinson Cano and reliever Damaso Marte brought back with them from their sojourns with the Dominican Republic team, Girardi would feel a lot better having his captain in the clubhouse. But Girardi is no dummy: He would just answer “no comment” with a smile, quietly letting everyone know how he really felt. If the United States had advanced to the next round, Jeter would have been away from the Yankees for another week at least.
So, after the Yankees hammered the Pirates 9–2 at George M. Steinbrenner Field here, a reporter informed Girardi that the United States was trailing Puerto Rico 4–3 in the ninth inning. “Who’s Puerto Rico’s closer?” he said, with a trace of optimism. No one in the room knew.
Turns out, it’s the Red Sox’s Fernando Cabrera, but, for whatever reason, Puerto Rico manager Jose Oquendo didn’t put him in, leaving in J.C. Romero, who loaded the bases while notching only one out. (Ironically, the one man he retired was Jeter.) When Oquendo finally called for Cabrera, it was too late: He walked Kevin Youkilis and gave up a two-run, game-winning single to the Mets’ David Wright (finally coming through in the clutch!). The United States advanced … and Jeter heads to Los Angeles for the finals, rather than to Tampa. (Mets fans will note that Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran should be back by this weekend with Puerto Rico’s elimination.)
The World Baseball Classic is about the only thing that hasn’t gone well for Girardi and the Yankees over the last couple of days. Girardi has watched his vaunted starting pitching staff of CC Sabathia, Joba Chamberlain, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte give up one run in the last four spring-training games. Also, Tuesday night, Mariano Rivera made his spring debut after his off-season shoulder surgery and dominated, dispatching the Pirates on eleven pitches in the fifth inning. “It went as well as I’d hoped, and how I thought it might,” Rivera said after the game.