The World Baseball Classic has had more thrills and plot twists than Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway opening an envelope at the Academy Awards. Winners have become losers, losers have become winners, and the unexpected has become expected.
We’re down to four teams. No more round-robin pool play. We’ve reached the semifinals, with three games in three days at Dodger Stadium. The Netherlands plays unbeaten Puerto Rico on Monday, the United States plays unbeaten Japan on Tuesday, and the winners meet in Wednesday’s championship game (all games at 9 p.m. ET on MLB Network, with ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN providing Spanish-language coverage). If only we could coax Vin Scully out of retirement to call a few innings.
Here’s a viewer’s guide to what to watch for the next three days:
So explain those rules again. Now that we’re out of pool play, we don’t have to worry about the complicated tiebreaking process. There are, however, a few rules to be aware of:
1. Pitchers are now allowed to throw a maximum of 95 pitches, up from 80 in the previous round. If a pitcher throws at least 30 pitches, he must sit a day, so this could come into play in the U.S.-Japan game, without a day off before the championship.
2. Starting in the 11th inning, the team at bat will have runners on first and second base to start the inning.
3. Instant replay will be used as it is in MLB, except there is no managerial challenge available.
How is Puerto Rico unbeaten? They’ve been the most impressive team in the tournament, outscoring their opponents 51-15, including two blowouts over Venezuela and 3-1 and 6-5 wins over the Dominican Republic and U.S., respectively, in the second round. Carlos Correa has led the offense with 2 home runs, 7 RBIs and a .375 average, while Carlos Beltran is hitting .471 and Francisco Lindor .389 with a couple of home runs.
The surprise has been a pitching staff that, on paper, lacked the depth, especially in the bullpen, of the U.S. or D.R., but manager Edwin Rodriguez has started five different pitchers and deftly managed the relievers. Brewers right-hander Jorge Lopez, who reached the majors in 2015 and then struggled all season in the minors in 2016, will start against the Netherlands, his second start of the tournament. If Lopez is scuffling early, Rodriguez said veteran lefty Hector Santiago will be the long man, with Jose Berrios available as another option. Mariners closer Edwin Diaz is the ninth-inning guy.
How is Japan 6-0? Let’s be honest: Japan faced a much easier road to the semifinals, especially with Korea getting knocked out in the first round. The Cuban team was much weaker than past editions, so that left Japan with only one reasonably tough opponent in six games, and it beat the Netherlands in 11 innings, taking advantage of the two-baserunner extra-inning rule to score two runs.
That doesn’t mean the Japanese aren’t a threat to win their third WBC in four tournaments. They’ve hit 10 home runs in their six games, although let’s see if that power translates from the friendlier confines of the Tokyo Dome to Dodger Stadium. Without a hard-throwing ace like Daisuke Matsuzaka or Yu Darvish to rely upon, as the team did in 2006 and 2009, manager Hiroki Kokubo has turned to his bullpen. Ryo Akiyoshi, Kazuhisa Makita and Yoshihisa Hirano each have appeared in five games, with Makita picking up a win and two saves. A former starter for Seibu, Makita transferred to the bullpen in 2016 and recorded a 1.60 ERA, although he wasn’t the team’s closer.
What is the Netherlands’ strength? They can hit the ball. With Xander Bogaerts, Jurickson Profar, Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons and Jonathan Schoop, there is plenty of major league experience. You may note all those guys are middle infielders, but manager Hensley Meulens — whose day job is as the Giants’ hitting coach — has gotten them all in the lineup by shifting Bogaerts to third base, Profar to the outfield and Gregorius at DH.
The team’s best hitter in the tournament, however, has been former big leaguer Wladimir Balentien, who last played in the majors in 2009. He’s hitting .519 with three home runs and 10 RBIs in the WBC. He’s played for Yakult in Japan since 2011 and slugged 60 home runs in 2013 and 31 in 2016.
How does the U.S. shape up? The most difficult thing for manager Jim Leyland is outlining a pitching strategy. Tanner Roark will start against Japan, while Marcus Stroman is lined up to get the ball if the U.S. reaches the final. Roark has pitched just once in the tournament, on March 11 against the D.R., and struggled with his command, allowing three runs and two walks in 1 1/3 innings. Stroman gave up six hits to start the game against Puerto Rico in the second round, although to be fair, a few of those were seeing-eye singles, and he settled down after that.
Roark, who had a 2.83 ERA for the Nationals in 2016, is certainly a fine starter, although the decision to start him over Chris Archer is odd, considering Archer had expected to return to the squad. Archer even pitched in a minor-league game Thursday to stay on schedule to pitch in the championship round. Instead, he was told to remain with the Rays and will start Wednesday in the Grapefruit League.
Perhaps Leyland felt a need to give Roark some work. Nationals manager Dusty Baker was upset when he woke up Sunday morning and learned that Roark hadn’t pitched in Saturday’s game, after being told Roark would be used over the weekend. Baker also was upset that Daniel Murphy hasn’t played much, with just six at-bats in six games.
The U.S. did call up Mark Melancon from its pitching pool for more bullpen depth. Without a day off between the semifinals and final, the likelihood is that Leyland wants to avoid using any of his relievers on back-to-back days, although since we’re deeper into spring training now, I wouldn’t rule out that possibility — after all, everyone still wants to win, and there’s no reason to hold, say, Andrew Miller back if he throws 15 pitches in a semifinal victory.
Give me a player to watch on each team. OK, let’s do it.
Puerto Rico: You can’t ignore Correa, who also has played an excellent third base, but if Puerto Rico gets past the Netherlands, Mets right-hander Seth Lugo would be on schedule to start the championship game. He started the Friday win over the U.S., allowing three runs in 5 2/3 innings, giving up home runs to Buster Posey and Adam Jones.
Netherlands: Kenley Jansen. The Dodgers closer wasn’t on the roster for the first two rounds, when the Netherlands played in Seoul and Tokyo, but has since been called up. The tough call for Meulens: Do you want to use Jansen only for a save situation, or do you get him in the game earlier if you feel it slipping away?
Japan: Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh. The 25-year-old left-handed slugger led Japan’s Pacific League with 44 home runs and has three home runs in the WBC. You have to think we’ll see Miller face him at some point.
United States: Eric Hosmer. It’s been a bit of surprise that Hosmer has basically become the first baseman over Paul Goldschmidt, which also has limited Murphy’s playing time when Goldschmidt is the DH, but he has rewarded Leyland’s confidence with a .381 average and no strikeouts in 21 at-bats.