MIAMI -- Two weeks realistically aren't enough time for a collection of baseball talent to transform itself into a team. But Joe Torre and the boys are plugging away at this whole concept of building an identity. In the span of four games, they've gone from uptight to opportunistic to bloodlessly efficient.
Team USA looked kind of nervous in its World Baseball Classic opener against Mexico, and had to scramble to beat Italy and Canada and spare itself the embarrassment of a quick departure. Now that the venue has changed and the stakes are even higher, the Americans can adjust to the thought of being frontrunners.
The U.S. team's bracket in the WBC shifted from Phoenix to Miami on Tuesday, and things began quite promisingly for the Americans. Washington Nationals lefty Gio Gonzalez, showing no sign of nervousness while pitching in his hometown, threw five shutout innings and was ably supported by five relievers. Mets third baseman David Wright drove in five runs, and the U.S. rolled Puerto Rico 7-1 to set up a meeting with a very determined, offensively minded Dominican squad Thursday.
It doesn't get a whole lot better than this -- in March, at least.
"It's a marquee matchup, and it's a stepping stone to where the finals are going to be played," Torre said. "That was our goal when we started this thing."
A lot of World Baseball Classic storylines have emerged this month, and debates have raged over everything from the lack of participation among some superstars to the bind that managers find themselves in trying to win games while getting everyone on the roster enough work.
Here's another strictly baseball-related factor that deserves a mention -- the need for teams to assemble rosters that are versatile enough to win in different parks while employing various styles of play.
After playing the opening round at Chase Field, a true launching pad, Team USA now has to tailor its game to hitters' graveyards. Marlins Park was the 26th most charitable home run yard in the majors in 2012. It's a huge place, so teams have to be able to manufacture runs rather than rely on the long ball. Chris Colabello and Jose Reyes went deep in the Dominican Republic's 5-4 victory over Italy on Tuesday afternoon, but the USA and Puerto Rico managed only 15 singles and four doubles in the second game.
The two teams that survive this leg of the tournament will head to the semifinals and finals at AT&T Park in San Francisco, another park that puts a premium on pitching, speed and defense. According to ESPN's MLB park factors, AT&T was the 29th ranked home run park in baseball and the stingiest park of all in terms of runs scored.
Offensive balance, plate discipline and the ability to use the entire field become paramount in this environment, and Team USA has the roster makeup to adapt quite nicely. All nine starters reached base safely against Puerto Rico, with Jimmy Rollins, Wright, Ryan Braun and Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton contributing two hits each. Designated hitter Ben Zobrist, the only USA starter without a hit, reached base once by walk.
"I think that's part of the beauty of our team," Braun said. "You have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things. We have guys who can bunt, who can hit-and-run and steal bases. We're going from first to third. We're scoring from first on doubles. There were quite a few balls that were hit pretty well tonight, and obviously this place plays pretty big. It's certainly a different game than you play in Arizona."
Wright, Team USA's No. 5 hitter, owed cleanup man Joe Mauer a big fat thank you after this one. Mauer walked three times to set up bases-loaded situations for Wright, and the Mets third baseman finally capitalized in a big way with a three-run double against reliever Xavier Cedeno to break the game open in the eighth.
When the night began, there was some buzz that Marlins Park might be close to capacity for USA versus Puerto Rico depending on the walk-up crowd. Major League Baseball tried to goose attendance by selling $5 tickets to anyone who showed up with a ticket to a Grapefruit League game. The late-arriving crowd of 32,872 was about 4,500 short of stadium capacity. But "USA" chants were abundant, and the Puerto Rican fans held up their end of the bargain by waving flags and blowing air horns.
"It was a good atmosphere," Mauer said. "When they made good plays, you knew about it. And when we made good plays, you knew about it too."
While Puerto Rico takes the field against Italy on Wednesday, Team USA will enjoy a day away from the park. But if the Pool 2 opener is any indication, the U.S. will be ready to go when R.A. Dickey takes the mound against Samuel Deduno on Thursday.
"It takes a little bit of time to develop the chemistry and camaraderie that are indicative of a true team," Braun said. "But I feel like we're at that point now. We're really having a lot of fun. Guys are picking each other up. Everybody's contributing, and we're doing a lot of the little things better than we did that first game. Hence, better results. We've come a long way in a short period of time."
And with each passing day and every victory, the Americans are getting close enough to smell the final leg of the trip.