By Larry Fine
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The World Baseball Classic shifts to San Francisco for the climax of the sport's top international tournament but missing from the party is the star-studded U.S. team, which struck out again.
The U.S. team flopped once again at the 16-team Classic, failing to get out of the second round, yet from the players to the manager, they said they treasured the experience.
"Is it a disappointment? Yes it is," said two-time All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips of the Cincinnati Reds after Friday's 4-3 loss to Puerto Rico eliminated the United States. "Everybody dreamed of being the winner. We want to be on top. And for us not to get there, it sucks a little bit."
It was the second time the U.S. was ousted in the double-elimination phase in three tries at the Classic. In 2009, they reached the final round but were beaten in the semi-finals.
"I feel like we did good, even though we lost," Phillips said. "It's still a disappointment, but it was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me."
This year's semi-finals start with Japan, gunning for their third Classic title in a row, playing Puerto Rico on Sunday. The undefeated Dominican Republic (6-0) play the Netherlands in Monday's semi-final with the title game on Tuesday.
Wins and losses aside, what stirred the Americans was the energy, excitement and passion exhibited on the diamond by proud players wearing their country's name across their chests and the life in the stands full of horns, whistles and drums.
Manager Joe Torre, who steered the New York Yankees to four World Series crowns and took off his Major League Baseball executive's suit to put on a uniform and get back in the dugout, said there were no regrets.
"The only thing I can say is this has been one of the most memorable experiences of my career," Torre said. "I'm a little emotional, but this has been much more than I expected.
"I mean, I knew it was going to be fun, but I never realized how the feeling of commitment from every one of these guys made this a great experience for me."
With All-Stars and award winners at virtually every position, from former most valuable players including Ryan Braun, Jimmy Rollins and Joe Mauer to Cy Young winning knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, the United States was seen as the deepest team in the field, although major leaguers were common on many of the teams.
But with the tournament held during spring training prior to the regular season, players were not all at peak form and by the nature of a sport in which the worst pro clubs still win about 40 percent of their games, the margin between teams is slim.
"It's just what happens in short series," said Torre. "It's not easy to do. And that's the one thing that I've always talked to my players about.
"You want to make people happy and you want to have people respect you, but to me it's more important to respect each other because you're the only ones that know how tough it is to do what you do, and it's not easy to accept defeat.
"On the other side of the coin, it's basically you have to respect the guy that beats you across the way."
Braun said he and his team mates had expected to still be playing.
"I think certainly for all of us, the expectation was to get to San Francisco and ultimately to win in San Francisco," he said. "But at the same time, we recognized the challenge that we were facing.
"For me this is the second time I had the opportunity to play in the WBC. Both of them were two of the top experiences I ever had as a baseball player.
"I would think anybody that watched the games could see the passion, the energy. Just the atmosphere, environment for all these games is really special. I think it far surpasses anything we experience in the regular season at any point."
The United States, hurt by a lack of hitting, probably fell into the trap of trying too hard, the Milwaukee Brewers outfielder said.
"There's no excuses, there's not necessarily rhyme or reason for it. I think when you're not swinging the bats well collectively, everybody tries a little bit harder to pick each other up, it's human nature."
(Editing by Gene Cherry)