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Braun leads Brewers' impressive Classic group

MILWAUKEE -- Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun will mostly play for national pride in the World Baseball Classic as a leading member of Team USA.

But there's an added bonus.

"It's so much more fun than Spring Training," he joked.

Braun, never shy about calling for a much shorter spring, will gladly trade a few sleepy days at Maryvale Baseball Park for the drama of the Classic, which returns for a third installment this spring and could feature as many as 14 players from the Brewers' system.

Braun and Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy were formally named to Team USA's provisional roster on Thursday morning. The rest of the field was revealed later in the day, and it included starting pitchers Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada for Mexico, catcher Martin Maldonado and starter Hiram Burgos for Puerto Rico, center fielder Carlos Gomez for the Dominican Republic, infielder Jeff Bianchi for Italy, infielder Hainley Statia for the Netherlands, infielder Mike Walker for Australia plus four players from Canada: Relievers John Axford and Jim Henderson, infielder Taylor Green and outfielder Rene Tosoni.

Maldonado expressed his excitement via Twitter.

Eleven of the Brewers' participants (all but Statia, Tosoni and Walker) are on Milwaukee's 40-man roster and will take leave from big league camp to play in the Classic. Braun, Gallardo, Gomez and Lucroy are all projected for the team's Opening Day lineup, Axford is the Brewers' closer and Henderson is pegged as the team's primary setup man.

The good news is that Milwaukee's highest-profile participants will not have to travel very far. The Americans, Canadians, Italians and Mexicans make up Pool D and will play a round-robin format at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale, Ariz., and at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix. Axford and his Canadian countrymen will actually play against the Brewers in a March 5 exhibition at Maryvale.

Then, it's on to the tournament. Italy and Mexico kick off Pool D play on March 7. Italy then takes on Canada, and Mexico draws the U.S. on March 8.

Meanwhile, back at Maryvale, the rest of the Brewers will be in their second week of relatively sleepy Spring Training games.

"It's definitely a different challenge," said Braun, who also played in the '09 Classic. "I think it's advantageous to me to know what I'm getting myself into and have a better idea of how I need to prepare myself to play nine innings right away and to play some very meaningful baseball games. It's a lot different than it would be preparing for a regular Spring Training. I've already done it once."

Does he worry at all about extending the season so dramatically?

"No, I don't think so," Braun said. "With the format, you don't play that many games. You do play more innings than usual for that time of year, and they're far more intense. But at least last time I played, it was spread out enough that there was some downtime.

"If anything, I think it could be an advantage to help prepare for the season. A lot of times, Spring Training can be boring and monotonous. Playing [in the Classic] can give you a head start on the season."

Braun surmised that position players are less affected by the accelerated schedule than starting pitchers, who are guarded from overuse in the Classic by pitch-count rules that have been modified for this year's event. Starters are limited to 65 pitches in pool play, 80 pitches in the second round and 95 pitches in the semifinals and finals at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

So Brewers officials will have a close eye on their starters in the tournament. Gallardo is the team's unquestioned No. 1, and Estrada has the inside track on one of the remaining four openings. Burgos, the Brewers' 2012 Minor League pitcher of the year, is probably headed to Triple-A Nashville to serve as insurance against an injury during the season.

Milwaukee Brewers, John Axford, Jeff Bianchi, Ryan Braun, Hiram Burgos, Marco Estrada, Yovani Gallardo, Carlos Gomez, Taylor Green, Jim Henderson, Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado, Hainley Statia, Rene Tosoni