TEMPE, Ariz. -- A decorated Team USA roster already has its back against the wall in the World Baseball Classic; a 5-2 opening loss to Mexico makes Saturday night's game against Italy a must-win. The result had little to do with talent -- more so with the reality and randomness of tournament play -- but it was another reminder of an underlying theme in the World Baseball Classic: American participation simply isn't as high.
Look no further than the star-studded Angels. Mike Trout opted to focus his time on preparing for his sophomore year; Josh Hamilton wanted no part of it after an offseason of transition; and Jered Weaver would've only considered it if he didn't end 2012 with a sore shoulder.
"The guys they want out there are the guys that throw 220-plus innings," Weaver, who played in the Pan-American Games of 2002, told reporters on Wednesday. "Those guys want the down time in the offseason to recuperate. As great as it would be to wear the red, white and blue … it's a tough thing to have to be ready for."
Major League front offices and coaching staffs are most reluctant to hand over their starting pitchers because their arms are counted on for so many innings and due to the injury risk tied to the heightened intensity of the Classic.
But Major League players in general, particularly in a country where baseball is most important from April to October, just have different priorities.
"I think it's going to be a little bit difficult to convince certain guys," Angels designated hitter Mark Trumbo said, "because at the end of the day, it's cool, but when it really counts is during our regular season."
"World Baseball Classic is great," catcher Chris Iannetta added, "but the most important thing is the season."
The only Angels participant is Dominican shortstop Erick Aybar, with Minor League reliever Fernando Cabrera (Puerto Rico) and first baseman Efren Navarro (Mexico) also taking part. Chris Iannetta, who played in the '09 Classic, doesn't believe anything can be done to make Major Leaguers more eager to participate.
The only timing that makes sense still isn't ideal.
"Our season's so long, our offseason's so short," Iannetta said. "Every part of our season is extremely critical. You can't do it in the middle because then you take time away from the continuity of the sport. ... You're obviously not going to do it in the playoffs, and then in the offseason, it would be really tough, just because guys aren't really in game shape. The only viable time is during Spring Training, and it's the beginning of the season, so there's a myriad of reasons why guys don't play."
After homer, Pujols knows he still has work to do
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Albert Pujols was asked the fitting, predictable question after coming out of Saturday's game against the Rockies.
"Any sense of relief to get the first home run out of the way?"
The Angels' first baseman scoffed, demonstratively yet playfully.
"I don't think of that," Pujols said. "I hit seven home runs last spring and had my worst start to a season. I come down here just to get my quality at-bats and get in games and get my legs in shape and my timing on, and hopefully by Opening Day get it going. Obviously, you always want to have a good Spring Training. You always want to swing the bat well, but in the end, as long as you get your work, I think that's the most important thing."
Starting his second Cactus League game -- and first since Tuesday, with both coming as the designated hitter as he works through offseason knee surgery -- Pujols got a 2-0, inside-corner sinker from Rockies starter Juan Nicasio and turned on it, skying a towering homer over the left-field fence to notch his first hit of the spring.
But a mere Spring Training homer isn't a sign that Pujols' Hall of Fame-caliber timing is back.
It isn't -- and it probably won't be at peak form until the regular season is a few weeks old.
"Usually, to me, it's probably by the middle of April when I feel really good," Pujols said. "So the first couple of weeks of April, I try to fight and get my hits here and there."
Pujols went 0-for-3 in his debut, striking out and hitting two slow rollers. On Saturday, he struck out on a checked swing in his first plate appearance, homered in his second and grounded into a 5-2-3, bases-loaded double play in his third.
Once again, the opposing team agreed to allow the Angels a courtesy runner in case Pujols needed to run the bases.
The 32-year-old slugger isn't ready to run full speed just yet, but he continues to make progress. After the game, Pujols ran the bases for the first time in one of the back fields at the Tempe Diablo Stadium complex. He said his surgically repaired right knee has "no pain at all," but isn't sure when he'll play first base in a game.
"Right now, I'm just happy to get my at-bats," said Pujols, who's expected to be ready by Opening Day. "We have a pretty good game plan. I don't want to rush this thing. I'm taking some ground balls and that's what I need."
Relievers Madson, Burnett both progressing
TEMPE, Ariz. -- There will be noticeable progression from the Angels' two new relievers next week, with Ryan Madson slated to return to the mound on Monday and Sean Burnett probably appearing in his first Cactus League game by Wednesday.
Madson's recovery from April 2012 Tommy John surgery came to a halt after a Feb. 1 setback due to elbow soreness, but the 32-year-old right-hander has progressed far enough in his program to throw another bullpen session.
After that, his rehab schedule is a little hazy.
Madson, all but guaranteed to start the season on the disabled list, previously estimated he'd need just under 10 bullpen sessions before being game ready, which may not leave him enough time to get into Cactus League action before the Spring Training schedule runs out. The Angels are still hopeful that Madson will be available at some point in mid-to-late April, but Madson isn't getting ahead of himself.
Monday's session is all about getting reacclimated.
"Just getting familiar with the mound again, and the mechanics and the slope and throwing to the catcher [on a downward plane], trying to get some timing and some coordination, mechanics and feel," said Madson, who was shut down after his fourth bullpen session of the offseason.
Burnett was shut down because of lower back stiffness on Feb. 18, but said he hasn't felt any pain in that area in "a week and a half, two weeks." The Angels' training staff has been extra cautious with Burnett's recovery, mainly because he has more than enough time to be ready by Opening Day.
The 30-year-old left-hander will throw a simulated game Sunday, then make his spring debut a few days later.
"I've been around long enough to know what I need," Burnett said. "If I start tomorrow with the simulated game, I'll get plenty of outings and probably just as many as any year before, if not more. I'm right on track. I'm not going to miss anything."
Scioscia away from team due to death in family
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Angels manager Mike Scioscia was away from the team for Saturday's game against the Rockies, flying back to his native Pennsylvania on Friday night to deal with a death in the family.
Scioscia, almost never absent, is expected back for Sunday's game against the Royals.
Bench coach Rob Picciolo took over in Scioscia's place, managing a lineup that had an everyday player at every position except shortstop -- Andrew Romine started, with Erick Aybar taking part in the World Baseball Classic -- and Albert Pujols serving as designated hitter.
"You always want Mike around, of course, but we've done this before," Picciolo said after Saturday's tilt. "I'll go text him right now and give him a report on the game."
• Prospect Andrew Taylor, the lefty reliever who was with the Angels as a September callup last year, hasn't appeared in a game since Feb. 27 due to tightness in his shoulder. The 26-year-old had a hard time getting loose for his first two Cactus League appearances and hasn't picked up a baseball since. He'll see a doctor on Saturday and could undergo an MRI on Monday.
Asked about concern that it's a rotator cuff issue that would require surgery, Taylor said: "I'm not too worried about that right now. I guess we'll see what the doc has to say."
• Veteran lefty reliever Mitch Stetter threw a shortened bullpen a few days ago and was scheduled to throw a regular session -- all fastballs -- on Saturday. The 32-year-old was told he'd need about five bullpen sessions before appearing in his first game of spring. Stetter, who posted a 4.08 ERA in 132 relief appearances with the Brewers from 2007-11, has been out with a bulging disk in his back.
• Here's what Ryan Madson had to say about legendary Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who announced on Saturday that he'll retire after the 2013 season: "I think everyone looks up to him, whether you're a pitcher or a hitter. I look up to him just for the way he goes about his business, what he's done, his accomplishments and the length of time he's been dominant. It's hard to be that dominant for one year, never mind however many years it's been."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.