Americans try to reach WBC title game at last

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SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. (AP) - Ryan Vogelsong has a little running joke that he is going to plunk San Francisco teammate Pablo Sandoval in the World Baseball Classic to keep the Panda from a three-homer game like the one he produced in Game 1 of the World Series last fall.

Sandoval plans to play nice once he pulls on the Venezuela uniform.

“He’s my teammate, I don’t want to fight,” Sandoval said with a smile.

Both know the team to beat: Two-time WBC winner Japan.

Joe Torre is returning to the top step of the dugout to manage the Americans, who have yet to even reach the championship game of this hugely popular international event played every three years.

Team USA has plenty of motivation to make up for two poor showings in this tournament. The Americans didn’t get out of the second round in 2009, then lost in the semifinals to Japan three years ago. Now, they are making plans to reach the semifinals and final at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.

“We’ll probably be disappointed if we don’t make it to San Francisco,” said Vogelsong, slated to be the No. 2 starter in the U.S. rotation. “First and foremost, we’re focused on getting there.”

The Japanese topped Cuba in the inaugural Classic in 2006, then South Korea three years later. Japan is known for its rigorous spring trainings, which typically begin a couple of weeks before the major league clubs and feature all-day workouts with just a short break to eat.

“It’s such a dedicated group of players. I go back to going over to Japan as a member of the Mets back in `74 and just noticing and at that time I didn’t think necessarily that the Japanese could play at our level, maybe stature-wise,” Torre recalled. “Even though their game was clean and disciplined, it just didn’t look like they were as good as we were. That’s certainly has changed.”

Rockies slugger Carlos Gonzalez will play alongside Sandoval for Venezuela. The World Series champion Giants have had to plan carefully this spring to get through the Cactus League with much of their roster headed to the WBC _ Marco Scutaro on Venezuela, Angel Pagan and Andres Torres on Puerto Rico, Vogelsong and reliever Jeremy Affeldt on the U.S. team, closer Sergio Romo pitching for Mexico.

“It’s my first time representing and I’m really looking forward to doing it,” Pagan said. “The first two Classics I couldn’t do it because I was either trying to make a team or I was trying to be the everyday player. It fills my heart to go out there and play in front of my countrymen and in front of my family. I did it when I played in New York and Puerto Rico but it’s not the same when you’re wearing the P.R. jersey. It’s going to be a little different, and I’m ready.”

And CarGo sure is confident in Venezuela’s chances.

“I don’t think we need practice _ Venezuela doesn’t need practice,” he said. “Japan, they train together for a long time and get prepared for that. We don’t really get prepared for that, we all focus on our teams. `OK, you’ve got to go play for your country.’ We’re all going to be blind, put the uniform on, let’s play.”

Many players are torn between playing for their country or playing for the club that signs their paycheck _ especially those who might be on the bubble of making the roster or earning a starting job.

Gonzalez said the Venezuelans feel tremendous pressure to take part in the Classic, yet he understands why Seattle ace Felix Hernandez has passed after signing a $175 million, seven-year contract earlier this month that made him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball.

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