Giant Panda wants a worldly ‘Triple Crown’

World Series, Venezuelan championship, WBC title ...

Ryan Vogelsong hopes to pitch the United States into the World Baseball Classic championship game, something the Americans never have done in two tournaments. Pablo Sandoval, who backs Vogelsong with defense during the Major League Baseball season, will represent Venezuela. The World Series champions hope to be crowned world champions all over again, and this time at the San Francisco Giants’ home ballpark. Enlarge photo

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press file photo

Ryan Vogelsong hopes to pitch the United States into the World Baseball Classic championship game, something the Americans never have done in two tournaments. Pablo Sandoval, who backs Vogelsong with defense during the Major League Baseball season, will represent Venezuela. The World Series champions hope to be crowned world champions all over again, and this time at the San Francisco Giants’ home ballpark.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.

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 final four 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 said. “Even though their game was clean and disciplined, it just didn’t look like they were as good as we were. That 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 every-day 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.

“You have to represent your team,” Gonzalez said. “You see all the news about King Felix not playing for Venezuela, and the whole country changes; they get upset that you’re not going to play for your country. They think it’s all about the money but, you know what, we’ve been working since we were 16 years old, and we came from Venezuela to represent. Especially King Felix, he’s been playing since he was 16 with Seattle. He’s a franchise player who was about to sign the biggest contract. It’s crazy how people feel bad about it. He has to think about his future; he has to think about his family. I think he made the right choice.”

The inaugural 2006 Classic featured a pool-play format, while 2009 was double-elimination; this one will be a combination of both. The first round will be pool play, with the top two teams advancing. The second round is double-elimination, and the top two teams will reach the semifinals.

The Americans will play their round-robin games at the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field in Phoenix.

“I’m not sure that our players weren’t excited,” Torre said of the previous two WBC tournaments. “The guys who have played this before were excited to get back to it. I think it’s still something to get a little used to. Let’s admit it, you play the USA team, MLB, even though there are a number of MLB players obviously playing for other countries, it’s like putting on your Sunday best, you know, We’re excited because we have a chance to beat them at their own game, so to speak.”

Semifinals will be played March 17-18, with the championship March 19 in the Giants’ waterfront ballpark.

That’s where Sandoval cleared the fences three times in a Game 1 World Series win against the Tigers.

The guy known as Kung Fu Panda hopes to find his groove again for his country.

“I’m trying to get the Triple Crown,” Sandoval said of the World Series, Venezuelan championship and World Baseball Classic.

Even if it does mean he gets hit by Vogelsong along the way.

AP Sports Writer Bob Baum contributed to this story.

After two unsuccessful World Baseball Classics, the Americans will turn to Joe Torre to skipper them to their first final four. “I’m not sure that our players weren’t excited,” Torre said of the previous two WBC tournaments. “The guys who have played this before were excited to get back to it.” Enlarge photo

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press file photo

After two unsuccessful World Baseball Classics, the Americans will turn to Joe Torre to skipper them to their first final four. “I’m not sure that our players weren’t excited,” Torre said of the previous two WBC tournaments. “The guys who have played this before were excited to get back to it.”

For all the added teams and the talking points surrounding the start of this year’s World Baseball Classic, one thing holds true: two-time WBC champion Japan remains the favorite to win the prestigious international tournament. Enlarge photo

Associated Press file photo

For all the added teams and the talking points surrounding the start of this year’s World Baseball Classic, one thing holds true: two-time WBC champion Japan remains the favorite to win the prestigious international tournament.