Ryoji Aikawa, Koji Yamamoto, Osamu Higashio

Can Japan be beat? Previewing the World Baseball Classic


While we’re still a week away from any World Baseball Classic play in North America, the tournament kicks off in Japan and Taiwan on Saturday (Friday night in the U.S.), with eight teams in two pools participating in round-robin play.

Pool A (Japan, March 2-6): Brazil, China, Cuba, Japan
Pool B: (Taiwan, March 2-5): Australia, Chinese Taipei, The Netherlands, South Korea
Pool C: (Puerto Rico, March 7-10): Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Spain, Venezuela
Pool D: (U.S., March 7-10): Canada, Italy, Mexico, United States

The top two teams in each pool advance into the second round. Pool A & B winners will play in Japan (March 8-12), while Pool C & D winners will play in Miami (March 12-16). Those will be modified double-elimination tournaments.  The single-elimination semifinals and finals will take place in San Francisco (March 17-19).

The Favorites


The two-time defending WBC champs will go it without a single MLB player this time, as talents such as Ichiro Suzuki, Yu Darvish and Hiroki Kuroda are remaining with their U.S. squads. Still, Japan does have one former major leaguer on the roster: infielder Kaz Matsui.

Strengths: A pitching staff full of guys with varied arsenals and deliveries that U.S., Cuban and Dominican hitters will be seeing for the first time. Also, Japan’s team has been training together and is closer to being regular-season ready than the teams comprised of MLB players.

Weaknesses: After two years of playing with a deadened ball in the Central and Pacific Leagues, how will Japanese players adjust to the standardized WBC baseball? Apart from catcher Shinnosuke Abe, Japan’s lineup probably won’t feature much power.


The United States didn’t even reach the finals in either of the first two WBCs. This year’s squad is lacking a lot of top talent, particularly in the rotation with only R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Vogelsong, Derek Holland and Ross Detwiler available to start.

Strengths: The lineup will be very solid from top to bottom, and with Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton and David Wright in the middle, it should particularly feast on any left-handers opposing teams dare to throw. Also, the back end of the bullpen has Chris Perez, Glen Perkins, Vinnie Pestano and likely closer Craig Kimbrel to finish off any leads.

Weaknesses: The rotation is the great unknown, particularly since there’s going to be very little feel for how each pitcher is throwing this early in the spring. It’s imperative that manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Greg Maddux identify quickly who has it and who to bury.

Dominican Republic

Like the U.S., the Dominican Republic’s best WBC finish so far is fourth. But while Team USA’s showing isn’t going to get a whole lot of attention at home, the Dominican team is under plenty of pressure to do better this time. One big problem: Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista and David Ortiz are all coming off injuries and are unavailable to manager Tony Pena.

Strengths: Even without Pujols, the D.R. still has the tourney’s best infield, with Edwin Encarnacion at first, Robinson Cano at second, Hanley Ramirez at third and Jose Reyes at shortstop. Also, the catching situation, which has tended to be a weakness in the past, has been upgraded by Carlos Santana’s emergence.

Weaknesses: The rotation is led by Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez, with little depth beyond them. Also, Bautista is simply a huge loss for the outfield, which may start Ricardo Nanita or Moises Sierra in left alongside Alejandro De Aza in center and Nelson Cruz in right.


It’d hardly be a surprise if Venezuela ends up outlasting the U.S. and D.R. The well-balanced team has quality major leaguers filling every lineup spot and Anibal Sanchez to lead the rotation.

Strengths: One possible lineup: SS Elvis Andrus, LF Martin Prado, 3B Miguel Cabrera, RF Carlos Gonzalez, 1B Pablo Sandoval, C Miguel Montero, DH Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B Marco Scutaro, CF Gerardo Parra.

Weaknesses: The bullpen could largely hinge on Francisco Rodriguez closing out games, a scary proposition given the way he finished 2012. After Sanchez, there aren’t any sure things for rotation possibilities (Carlos Zambrano, Jhoulys Chacin, Henderson Alvarez).


Cuba couldn’t have been thrilled to be put in Japan’s opening pool after being eliminated by the team in the 2006 Finals and in round 2 in 2009. A win over Japan in pool play might provide a huge shot of confidence this time around.

Strengths: The lineup duo of Yulieski Gourriel and Alfredo Despaigne is about as good as any other country’s top two. That there isn’t much in the way of scouting reports or video of many of the team’s hurlers figures to serve Cuba well. And then there’s the obvious plus: Cuba’s players are in prime shape after playing all winter.

Weaknesses: A lack of depth has sometimes been Cuba’s undoing in tournaments, as the top-shelf talent tends to drop off quickly. While Ismel Jimenez and Odrisamer Despaigne are pitchers to watch, the more veteran hurlers aren’t particularly imposing.


Korea finished third in the inaugural WBC and second in 2009, winning the 2008 Olympic tournament in between. Veterans of those teams like Seung Yeop Lee and Dae Ho Lee are back for another go. In fact, it’s veterans all around: 12 players on the squad are at least 30 and the youngest player on the roster turns 25 next month.

Strengths: Korea has managed to integrate Japan’s successful small-ball approach with more pop in international play, and this year’s roster will feature a bunch of quality arms, some with unusual deliveries. The infield should be terrific thanks to both Lees, Tae-Kyun Kim and Jung-Ho Kang.

Weaknesses: This roster may be a little past its prime. It’s going to miss Dodgers left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu and Reds outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, both of whom were with the team in 2009.


Going strictly by talent, Pools B and D will be pretty wide open for the second berths. My pick is Taiwan for second place in Pool B and Mexico for second place in Pool D.

While it’d be quite an upset if any of the six favorites failed to advance to the final eight, three-game round-robins don’t always end well for the most talented teams. It’s not at all difficult to imagine a scenario in which Team USA, Canada and Mexico all beat Italy and go 2-1 in Pool D, with a tiebreaker determining which two advance.

As for a prediction, I’m thinking the North American teams are in better shape this year that they have been in the past. The MLB talent drain has left Japan’s roster a bit light, and while I’m a big Korea booster, I suspect this isn’t as good of a roster as the team I fell for in the 2008 Olympics. Team USA has a shot, but that the players still aren’t in regular-season form is a big handicap. I’m picking Venezuela to beat Japan in the finals.

Kyle Schwarber is the feel-good story of the 2016 postseason

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after hitting an RBI single to score Ben Zobrist #18 (not pictured) during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
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Most baseball fans and even the Cubs had resigned themselves to most likely not seeing Kyle Schwarber in game action until spring training next year after he suffered a gruesome knee injury in a collision with teammate Dexter Fowler back in early April. Schwarber suffered a fully-torn ACL and LCL in his left leg.

To the surprise of everyone, including manager Joe Maddon, Schwarber was cleared by doctors to play if the Cubs wanted to put him on the World Series roster. So they did. And, boy, are they glad they did it. In preparation, Schwarber saw over 1,000 pitches from machines and pitchers in the Arizona Fall League.

Schwarber essentially crammed for the final exam and unlike most students who do it, it has panned out well thus far. No one was expecting him to look outstanding against Indians ace Corey Kluber in Game 1, but in his first at-bat — his first in the majors since suffering the injury in April — Schwarber worked a 3-1 count before eventually being retired on strikes. Schwarber came back up in the fourth and drilled a Kluber sinker to right field for a two-out double.

In the seventh inning, facing one of the American League’s two scariest left-handed relievers in Andrew Miller, Schwarber worked a full count before drawing a walk. During the regular season, Miller walked exactly one lefty batter. Schwarber made it two. Schwarber would face Miller again in the eighth, going ahead 2-1 before ultimately striking out. He finished 1-for-3 with a walk and a double in the Cubs’ 6-0 loss. Considering the circumstances, that’s amazing.

Schwarber continued his great approach in Game 2 in what turned out to be a 5-1 victory. He struck out against Trevor Bauer in the first inning, but returned to the batter’s box in the third inning and singled up the middle to knock in the Cubs’ second run. Schwarber made it 3-0 in the fifth when he singled up the middle again, this time off of Bryan Shaw, to make it 3-0. Facing Danny Salazar in the sixth, Schwarber drew a four-pitch walk to put runners on first and second base with two outs. Finally, he struck out against Dan Otero in his eighth-inning at-bat, finishing the evening 2-for-4 with a pair of RBI singles and a walk.

But now, as the Cubs return to Chicago for World Series Games 3, 4, and 5 at Wrigley Field, they have to contest with National League rules, a.k.a. no DH. Will Maddon risk Schwarber’s subpar defense to put his dangerous bat in the lineup? Even if Schwarber is not put in the starting lineup, he can at least serve as a dangerous bat off the bench late in the game when the Indians send out their trio of relievers in Shaw, Miller, and closer Cody Allen. At any rate, what Schwarber has done already in the first two games of the World Series is mighty impressive.

Jake Arrieta flirts with no-hitter, pitches Cubs past Indians 5-1 in World Series Game 2

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Jake Arrieta #49 of the Chicago Cubs throws a pitch during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Gene Puskar - Pool/Getty Images)
Gene Puskar - Pool/Getty Images

Cubs starter Jake Arrieta pitched into the sixth inning before allowing his first hit. Behind his strong performance, the Cubs were able to take down the Indians 5-1 in Game 2 of the World Series to even things up at one game apiece.

Unlike their Game 1 performance against Corey Kluber, the Cubs’ offense was ready early. Kris Bryant singled with one out in the first inning against Indians starter Trevor Bauer and promptly scored when Anthony Rizzo drilled a double down the right field line. The Cubs would score again in the third with a two-out rally as Rizzo walked, then Ben Zobrist and Kyle Schwarber hit consecutive singles to center field, plating one run to make it 2-0.

With Zach McAllister returning to the mound for the fifth after relieving Bauer in the fourth, he walked Rizzo, then gave up a triple to Zobrist. The Cubs continued to press their foot on the gas, with Schwarber hitting another RBI single. After Jason Kipnis committed a fielding error on a Willson Contreras grounder — what should’ve been the final out of the inning — McAllister walked Jorge Soler to load the bases, then walked Addison Russell to force in a run, pushing the Cubs’ lead to 5-0.

Arrieta had a first-inning scare, issuing back-to-back two-out walks, but he escaped the jam and seemed to be on cruise control until the sixth inning. He got Carlos Santana to fly out to lead off the sixth, continuing his no-hit bid, but Kipnis broke it up with a double to right field. After getting Francisco Lindor to ground out, pushing Kipnis to third base, Arrieta uncorked a wild pitch, helping the Indians score their first run of the game. Arrieta then served up a single to Mike Napoli, which proved to be the end of the line. Manager Joe Maddon came out to replace him with lefty Mike Montgomery. Montgomery ended the bottom of the sixth by inducing a weak ground out from Jose Ramirez.

Montgomery struck out the first two batters he faced in the seventh, then got into a bit of hot water by yielding a single to Brandon Guyer, then walking Game 1 hero Roberto Perez. Carlos Santana, however, struck out to end what would be the Indians’ last real chance to get back in the ballgame.

Montgomery remained in the game in the bottom of the eighth. He struck out Kipnis, got Lindor to ground out, then gave up a line drive single to Napoli before Maddon pulled the plug. Closer Aroldis Chapman entered to face Ramirez. As expected, Chapman got Ramirez to whiff on a fastball to send the game to the ninth.

In the bottom of the ninth, Chapman fanned Rajai Davis and got Coco Crisp to ground out for two quick outs. He walked Guyer on five pitches but ended the game as rain drizzled onto Progressive Field by getting Perez to ground out to shortstop.

The World Series is now headed back to Wrigley Field. The two clubs will enjoy a day off on Thursday to travel. Game Three will be played at 8:00 PM EDT on Friday. The Indians will send Josh Tomlin to the hill while the Cubs will counter with Kyle Hendricks.