COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nomar Garciaparra would have appreciated the major league curveball thrown by April Heinrichs on Sunday. Then again, maybe not.
With his team having secured its place in baseball's playoffs, the Boston Red Sox player, a keen soccer fan, traveled to Ohio to watch his fiancee, Mia Hamm, and the rest of the United States team play North Korea in the fourth FIFA Women's World Cup.
Hamm never got in the game. Neither did Cindy Parlow nor Shannon Boxx, while Julie Foudy played only a half of Sunday's 3-0 victory.
All four had started the previous two matches and between them had scored six of the Americans' eight goals. Leaving the quartet on the bench was a calculated gamble by Heinrichs, the U.S. coach, but it paid off. Players who needed rest got it, and those who stepped in were able to defeat the Koreans in front of 22,828 at Crew Stadium on a cold and cloudy afternoon.
A first-half goal on a penalty kick by forward Abby Wambach and two second-half goals by defender Catherine Reddick were more than enough to undo the Asian champions, who afterward once again complained about "unfair refereeing."
The victory secured first place in Group A for the defending world champion U.S., which advanced to a quarterfinal game against 1995 champion Norway on Wednesday in Foxboro, Mass.
Still, leaving Hamm out entirely came as a shock, particularly to the fans, who began chanting "We want Mia!" midway through the second half.
Instead, they first got Foudy, as a halftime replacement for Kristine Lilly, then Shannon MacMillan as a 55th-minute replacement for Wambach, and, finally, Danielle Slaton, who made her World Cup debut in the 72nd minute when she came on in place of Kate Sobrero.
The surprise starting lineup and subsequent substitutions created a little bit of U.S. soccer history. It was the first World Cup game that Hamm has sat out, ending a 20-match streak dating to 1991.
"I'm sure she's a little disappointed," Heinrichs said. "They were chanting her name. Nomar was here tonight, which may be his only opportunity to watch her during the Women's World Cup. So I'm sure it's a disappointment for her not to get to play.
"But she's always the first to celebrate this team's success."
All the same, the decision to rest Hamm, the world's all-time leading goal scorer, went directly against what Heinrichs had said the day before.
"If you take Mia Hamm out, you run the risk of turning the [scoring] faucet off," she said Saturday. "I wouldn't want to be the one that shut the faucet off, that's for sure."
Hamm was in two minds about the decision. "Not at all," she replied when asked if she was upset, then elaborated.
"What happens on a day like today is you balance between wanting to stay sharp [by playing] and also understanding that another day's rest is going to help," she said.
"But the team was great today. As soon as we got that second goal, and definitely the third goal, I knew I wasn't coming in, and that was fine with me."
Heinrichs has fielded a different starting lineup in each of the team's three games, using 18 of the 20 players on the roster. The only two who haven't played are backup goalkeeper Siri Mullinix and injured midfielder Angela Hucles.
On Sunday, Tiffany Roberts started in place of Boxx; Aly Wagner took Parlow's place; Kylie Bivens, from Upland, started instead of Foudy; and Tiffeny Milbrett replaced Hamm.
The lineup worked and it took the U.S. only 17 minutes to take the lead, with Wambach slamming a penalty kick past North Korean goalkeeper Ri Jong Hui after O Kum Ran had fouled Milbrett.
Wambach actually had put the ball in the net before the penalty kick, finishing a fine move involving Christie Pearce and Bivens, but the apparent goal was disallowed by Brazilian referee Sueli Tortura because of the foul on Milbrett.
"I've never seen anything like that in my life," Heinrichs said of the negated goal and subsequent penalty.
Trailing at the half, North Korea, which needed a victory to stay in the 16-nation tournament, saw its hopes disappear in the second 45 minutes when Reddick took charge.
The University of North Carolina defender, the youngest player on the team, doubled the Americans' lead three minutes into the second half.
Wagner crossed the ball on a corner kick from the right, Foudy jumped to flick it with her head toward the far post, where Reddick bundled it into the net with her hip.
In the 66th minute, Reddick scored again, this time on a powerful header off a cross from MacMillan.
"I guess the attacking mentality of the team just got to me," Reddick said.
Goalkeeper Briana Scurry preserved the shutout with two superb saves late in the game
The Americans, able to mix and match players at will, have scored 11 goals in three games heading into the quarterfinals.
Finding a way to stop them is a problem that Norway has until Wednesday to solve.