Ryoji Aikawa, Koji Yamamoto, Osamu Higashio

Can Japan be beat? Previewing the World Baseball Classic

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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

Japan

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.

USA

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.

Venezuela

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

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

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.

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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.

Mike Napoli hit a homer for a fan with cancer

CLEVELAND, OH -  MAY 30: Mike Napoli #26 of the Cleveland Indians rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run during the sixth inning against the Texas Rangers at Progressive Field on May 30, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Last night a fan named Kathi Heintzelman showed up at Progressive Field in Cleveland with a sign asking Indians first baseman Mike Napoli to hit a home run for her and to give her a hug. But there was a reason beyond her love for Mike Napoli. She’s starting chemotherapy today and the hug and homer would be a nice thing.  Hard to disagree with that, even if everyone knows that ballplayers can’t hit homers on demand.

Well, most players can’t. Mike Napoli did the easy part before the game, giving her a hug. Then in the sixth inning, he went yard:

 

Whether you believe that such things can be fated or if you merely acknowledge that Heintzelman asked Napoli for a homer at a good time — he’s on a hot streak right now and has hit bombs in four of his last 11 games — it’s a great story.

 

The Twins recall Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton
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Byron Buxton has been recalled from Triple-A Rochester by the Twins.

Buxton will replace Danny Santana, who was placed on the disabled list following a hamstring injury. But the bigger picture here is that Buxton will get a fresh go-around to show that he is the future of the Twins like so many assume he will be. The 22-year-old hasn’t hit so far in the majors, but he batted .336/.403/.603 with six homers, four steals, and a 26/11 K/BB ratio over 129 plate appearances after his demotion to Triple-A last month.

At this point the Twins, who stink on ice, need to just put their top young player in the game and let him learn to swim at the big league level rather than try to squeak out a few extra relatively meaningless wins with guys who won’t be part of the next contending Twins team.

92-year-old World War II vet throws a nifty ceremonial first pitch

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Think of how many bad ceremonial first pitches you’ve seen. From the worm burners from local business owners and pillars of the community at minor league games to ex-big leaguers who obviously haven’t picked up a ball since they retired to the famous celebrity ones that go viral the next day, there are probably a lot more bad first pitches out there than good ones.

But when the good ones come, they’re really enjoyable. And few are more enjoyable than the one which preceded yesterday’s Padres-Mariners game in Seattle. The pitcher: Burke Waldron, a 92-year-old veteran of World War II. He did it in his dress whites. He ran out onto the field beforehand. And though his catcher didn’t set up the full 60 feet, six inches away from where Waldron threw it, it was still a spiffy pitch. Way better than most:

And That Happened: Monday’s scores and highlights

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 30:  Matt Harvey #33 of the New York Mets celebrates after retiring the side in the seventh inning against the Chicago White Sox  during their game at Citi Field on May 30, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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There were a lot of complete games and a lot of non-complete games that nonetheless saved tired bullpens yesterday. It’s not like it was 1973 all over again or anything, but it was pretty notable all the same. Anyway, here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Mets 1, White Sox 0: Matt Harvey is 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 6/1 since deciding to not talk to the media. Clearly avoiding the press is a good move for him and he should continue to do so.

Braves 5, Giants 3: Mike Foltynewicz gave up an early homer to Brandon Belt but then buckled down and allowed only one run over six innings. Mallex Smith hit a three-run triple. If you squint a little you can imagine those two starring in games that actually matter for Atlanta one day.

Red Sox 7, Orioles 2: Steven Wright allowed two runs on four hits in tossing a complete game. It was his third of those on the year. In 2015 the league leaders in complete games in both the NL and the AL notched four each. Will White had 75 of them in 1879. People always talk about Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak as being baseball’s ultimate unbreakable record. I got my money on Will White’s CG mark. If you insist on going post-deadball era I’ll take Bob Feller’s 36 in 1946, which I’m pretty sure is equally unbreakable.

Cardinals 6, Brewers 0: Carlos Martinez struck out eight in eight shutout innings — he needed that — and Matt Carpenter had four hits. Martinez has owned the Brewers so far in his career. He should be getting quarterly reports and have his own parking space at Miller Park.

Athletics 3, Twins 2: Kendall Graveman had an uncharacteristically solid start. Coco Crisp led off the game with a homer. He also added to the difficulty of a nice Chris Coghlan catch on a sac fly in the fifth, providing a body block of sorts. We’ve still never seen a heel-turn in a major league baseball game, but this is how one would start. They’re more creative now, but back in the 80s all the good heel turns started with some minor accident or miscommunication during a tag team match or something, causing the newly formed heel to believe his friend had turned on him when he really just made a mistake. If Coghlan was getting a push as a new heel, this is how it’d go. I doubt it will happen because MLB’s bookers really aren’t on top of things, but I’m gonna watch the next A’s game anyway to see if he hits Crisp with a metal chair during a standup interview with whoever the A’s version of Gordon Solie is.

Mariners 9, Padres 3Kyle Seager and Dae-Ho Lee homered. It wasn’t too long ago that the two teams combined in a Mariners-Padres game might not score nine runs in a whole three-game series. Or at least it felt like that. Seattle has come a long way.

Reds 11, Rockies 8: An 11-8 game with 28 hits and seven home runs that featured a big lead blown and a big rally that had its momentum maintained by a walk to a pitcher? Let me guess: Coors Field? *checks* Yes, I guessed correctly. Two homers from Adam Duvall who has 11 13 on the year somehow.

Astros 8, Diamondbacks 3: The offense was nice for Houston but a big game from Collin McHugh, going the distance the day after the Astros bullpen got sapped, was huge for them too. Jason Castro drove in three. Houston has won six of seven. I told y’all they’d come around eventually.

Cubs 2, Dodgers 0: Jason Hammel had to leave the game after two shutout innings with hamstring cramps. All the Cubs bullpen did was toss seven perfect innings. Not seven shutout innings. Seven perfect innings. Dang. One hit and one walk in the game for the Dodgers, each off of Hammel.

Rangers 9, Indians 2: Nomar Mazara’s hit a homer — a long homer —  in the fourth innins. He now has five home runs and 12 RBI in his last 11 games. The Astros may be turning it around, but the first place Rangers have won eight of 10 so it’s not like they’re gaining much ground.

Nationals 4, Phillies 3: Daniel Murphy hit a solo homer, singled, doubled and drove in three. He’s at .395/.426/.621 on the year. That’ll play. Bryce Harper had to leave after getting hit on the knee with a pitch, but he shouldn’t miss much time.

Blue Jays 4, Yankees 2: The Jays have taken five of six. Marco Estrada allowed three hits and struck out six in eight shutout innings. Just a ton of strong pitching performances yesterday. Not crazy Kershaw-style things, but a lot of “the bullpen was tired after the weekend and we need you to eat innings” kind of gutsy performances, this one being no exception.

Pirates 10, Marlins 0: OK, I take that back. Jeff Locke had a dominant performance with a three-hit shutout. Although he only struck out one dude, so that may or may not qualify depending on your definition of dominance. 105 pitches and no walks is pretty dang spiffy either way, though. Gregory Polanco hit a grand slam. Guy is hitting .315/.393/.565 from the 7-hole.

Royals 6, Rays 2: Eric Hosmer hit a three-run bomb in the Royals’ four-run eighth inning. Four wins in a row for the champs.

Angels 5, Tigers 1: Justin Verlander and Jhoulys Chacin traded zeroes until the eighth inning when Verlander ran out of zeros. The Angels rallied four five runs that inning, four charged to JV, and Chacin kept cruising, finishing the game with 10 strikeouts and allowing only one run in a complete game.