The end comes sooner than expected

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Roger Clemens was on the hill and he pitched well, but he wasn't the man Thursday night.

Bob Davidson made another dubious call (this time turning a no-brainer home run off the right-field foul pole into a stand-up double for Mexico's Mario Valenzuela), but that wasn't the story.

The crowds at Angel Stadium had been insane all week, but this one, though they generated the occasional nationalistic chant, never really reached a fever pitch.

Team USA's offense had shown serious pop all tournament long (a WBC-best .533 slugging percentage coming in), but only managed three base hits.

For Team Mexico, it was a 2-1 victory and a party in the parking lot. But for Team USA, it was the game that wasn't.

"Tonight, we just couldn't connect for that extra hit to extend an inning or to go ahead or tie," said a somber Alex Rodriguez afterward.

True enough. The Americans stranded runners in the first, second, fourth, fifth, and ninth innings. They were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. With runners on second and third in the fifth inning, Derek Jeter gutted out a tough eight-pitch at-bat, fouling off balls at his face and his feet, only to ground out to second base and end the inning. In the ninth, down one, with runners on first and second and one out, Vernon Wells tattooed a ball toward short, but his bat exploded and the ball died, going from potential game-tying single to game-ending double-play in the blink of an eye. And so it went.

"They just pitched well, top to bottom," Jeter said of Mexico's eight different pitchers. "We didn't see any of them more than once tonight, and they all pitched well against us."

That's baseball, of course. Sometimes, odds and expectations be damned, you go out, all whimper and no bang.

The night began with everyone in the park expecting to see balls jumping off bats and over walls. The erratic Oliver Perez was starting for Mexico, and the American hitters were motivated, focused, and, unlike in their games against Korea and Japan, familiar with the arms they were about to face.

"We really came into this game with a lot of confidence," Rodriguez said. "It felt like we could play well and dominate this game."

It wasn't until the failed opportunity in the bottom of the fifth, coming on the heels of Mexico's second run (on two singles and a sacrifice) in the top half of the inning, that it started to feel as though maybe the U.S. squad was closer to heading back to its various spring training homes than on to the tournament finals.

"Our goal was to get there [to San Diego]," said right fielder Vernon Wells. "We just came up short."

In a tournament where the tiebreaking contingencies were enough to make Ivy League mathematicians cry uncle, this game came down to simple numbers. One run. One chance. One inaugural WBC championship weekend. And, it turned out, one seat on the sidelines.

"We have no excuses," Jeter said. "We got all the breaks to get to this point. We had our chance."

While the Mexican faithful danced and sang their way through the corridors of Angel Stadium, celebrating a morale-boosting win over their heavily-favored neighbors, Jeter and company barely managed a whisper before crowds of microphones in the hallway outside the U.S. locker room.

"We're just very disappointed," said young reliever Huston Street. "I love this team. I was looking forward to playing with these guys [in San Diego]. I'm just not ready for it to be over."

Their postgame mood, the flat, deflated-balloon feel that hung over the U.S. side from the fifth inning on, was in stark contrast to the team's enthusiasm for the tournament coming in to the game.

"This has been such a special experience," manager Buck Martinez said during batting practice. "We've all returned to the level of playing the game for joy in this thing. It's been a rebirth."

Three hours later, he told the press room about how the guys were hurting down in the locker room.

Which feeling will he and the club carry away with them now that it's over?

"In the end, it was fun. I would recommend it to anyone that has the opportunity next time it comes around. It was a fun experience, right up until tonight," said Jeter, finally managing a smile.

Vernon Wells, who's been rah-rah about this thing from the beginning, agreed. "We're disappointed, but we can't really hang our head too much," he said. "This tournament shows you how good baseball is around the world. It's been fun to be a part of. It's fun to see the different countries and how they play the game, and the different flair they bring to it, and all the fun they have. Unfortunately, they had a little too much fun tonight."

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.