SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Derrek Lee and his U.S. teammates never discussed or even envisioned a first-round scenario in which their World Baseball Classic fate would be in the hands of another team.
After a serious scare, the talented roster of major leaguers suddenly has a much better grasp - not to mention appreciation - of the stakes in international play.
"I was really nervous," said Lee, the Chicago Cubs slugger who homered, doubled and drove in four runs to help the United States advance to the next round with a 17-0 rout of South Africa on Friday. "You don't want things out of your control."
Now, they've got a clean slate, perhaps comparable to the start of the playoffs in October when every team is on equal footing again after the September chase.
The Americans begin the second round today in Anaheim, Calif., against Japan, which went 2-1 in its initial group with a 3-2 loss to unbeaten South Korea on March 5. Mexico and South Korea are set to meet in the second game today at Angel Stadium.
The U.S. team took Saturday strictly as a travel day and didn't schedule a workout in Anaheim like the other squads. The Americans should be well rested, considering they needed only five innings and 1 hour, 47 minutes to eliminate South Africa with the mercy rule.
After a surprising 8-6 loss to Canada on Wednesday, a complicated system had the United States on the brink of elimination from the inaugural 16-nation tournament. But Mexico handily beat the Canadians - taking a big lead early - to boost the Americans' hopes, then they went out and did their part.
Facing the reality of the event's unique format clearly brought the U.S. team closer. Now, these men realize every game is for real.
"It was a little nerve-racking," said outfielder Randy Winn of the San Francisco Giants. "I'm more happy about it now that we got through it."
Jake Peavy takes the mound for the Americans against Japanese right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, who led the Pacific League with 215 innings and 226 strikeouts for the Seibu Lions last year. Matsuzaka is hoping to use this as an opportunity to showcase his skills to major league teams and aspires to play in the United States soon.
"Now that the second round is here, I think the intensity is going to pick up," said Ken Griffey Jr., who homered twice in the victory over South Africa.
"Now that we've all been through this first round, I think we know that our goal is to win this tournament," said U.S. manager Buck Martinez.