Can Japan be beat? Previewing the World Baseball Classic

26 Comments

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.

///

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.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

Getty Images
2 Comments

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 8, Mets 2Yasmani Grandal hit two solo homers, but it was Yasiel Puig‘s three-run homer in the bottom of the fourth which padded the Dodgers’ lead to 5-1 and essentially ended the competitive portion of the ballgame. It started the cranky portion, however, as Puig admired the blast and took a slow trot which caused several Mets players to chirp at him. After the game Wilmer Flores said this of Puig:

“I don’t think he knows what having respect for the game is. We’re playing horrible right now, we don’t need his  sh–.”

I haven’t seem a Wilmer so testy since the last time I watched “The Maltese Falcon.” I dunno, Wilmer. Maybe play better? The Mets have dropped six of seven. The Dodgers have won six straight and 12 of 13.

Mariners 7, Tigers 5: Elsewhere in unwritten rules land, Jarrod Dyson bunted to break up Justin Verlander‘s perfect game in the sixth. Unlike the Mets, no one with the Tigers took exception with it. Probably because it sparked a three-run rally for the M’s which put them back in the ballgame. Nelson Cruz drove in two that inning with a double and three overall. Mitch Haniger homered.

Marlins 2, Nationals 1: I wrote this one up in detail here. Short version: Max Scherzer loses both the no-hitter and the game in the eighth inning. Guess it wasn’t a good day for taking no-hitters deep in the game for current and/or former members of the Tigers rotation. I know he’s on the DL now, but please, someone check on Drew Smyly.

Rays 8, Reds 3Trevor Plouffe and Taylor Featherston homered. Steven Souza and Logan Morrison each drove in two runs. A really long rundown happened too, nabbing Billy Hamilton. It took five throws and an outfielder made the putout. I can’t find a real time video of it from MLB, but this is pretty funny. The lighted dot in the top is Mallex Smith, who came a long way in from left to finally make the play:

Royals 6, Red Sox 4: Down 4-2 in the bottom of the eighth, the Royals loaded the bases and Sal Perez smacked a grand slam. He used one of Miguel Cabrera‘s bats to do it too. Miggy had given the bat to Drew Butera who gave it to Perez. Thanks to the blast, the Royals moved three games ahead of Detroit for third place in the Central. Thanks, Miggy!

Cardinals 7, Phillies 6: Rather than quickly recap the details of a very ugly Phillies loss, I’m gonna just send you to Bill’s recap of this game from late last night. Bill, a Phillies fan, does not spare a detail here, even though every part of him probably wanted to forget this game even happened. It’s sort of like one of those morbidity and mortality reports they make doctors give after patients die. Sure, you’d like to put it all behind you, but there is a value in hashing out all of the horrible mistakes. Doing so makes doctors better in the long run. I’m not sure what Bill is getting out of this. Either way, his patient is dead on a slab.

Padres 3, Cubs 2Erick Aybar hit a home run to things up at two in the sixth inning and Luis Torrens walked with the bases loaded against Koji Uehara to put the Pads ahead in the eighth. Torrens wouldn’t have even been playing if it weren’t for the fact that Austin Hedges was hurt and if it wasn’t for Antony Rizzo’s bad slide the other night, Hedges wouldn’t have been hurt. Some folks might call that karma.

Indians 5, Orioles 1: Carlos Carrasco struck out 10 in six shutout innings, scattering seven hits. Francisco Lindor homered and drove in three. Cleveland has won seven of eight. Baltimore has lost 10 of 14 and have allowed at least five runs in 18 consecutive games. That’s two short of the major league record set by the 1924 Philadelphia Phillies.

Yankees 8, Angels 4Didi Gregorius and Matt Holliday each homered as the Yankees end a seven game losing streak. Despite the win, the Yankees still got the now de rigueur terrible outing from Tyler Clippard, who came into a six-run game in the ninth inning and promptly gave up a double and a two-run homer, causing Joe Girardi to go to Aroldis Chapman despite it not being a save situation. That homer was by Martin Maldonado. He hit two in the game, in fact.

Braves 5, Giants 3Matt Kemp hit a two-run walkoff homer in the 11th inning to give the Braves the win. Matt Adams hit a two-run homer and Tyler Flowers went deep as well. It was the Braves 12th walkoff win. That leads the bigs this year.

Blue Jays 7, Rangers 5: The Jays jumped out to a 6-o lead in the first inning and built it to 7-0 after three. That’s all the scoring they’d do, but it was enough even though the Rangers made it close. Darwin Barney hit a two-run homer in that first frame. The most exciting play of the game, however, was Joey Gallo hitting an inside the park homer:

He was aided, of course, by Steven Pearce losing the ball, slamming into the wall and falling, but an inside-the-park dong is an inside-the-park dong.

Brewers 4, Pirates 3: Down 3-2 in the seventh, Domingo Santana jacked a two-run homer to give the Brewers the lead and the win. Later, Orlando Arcia made a great defensive play to end the game. It only shows up as a 6-3 putout in the box score, but it was dang spiffy:

Twins 4, White Sox 2: The young stars lead the Twins to victory: Jose Berrios allowed two runs over eight innings, striking out eight and Miguel Sano homered for the second straight night. The future looks bright for Minnesota.

Diamondbacks 16, Rockies 5: You don’t win many games when you allow ten runs in a single inning like the Rockies did here in the fourth. Brandon Drury drove in six runs without even homering. Indeed, the Rockies only gave up one homer, and it was already 12-3 when that one happened. All this on the day when the Dbacks skipped batting practice. Maybe there’s a lesson in there.

Actually, no, there’s no lesson in there. Stuff just happens. That’s basically true for most things in the universe: Stuff. Just. Happens.

 

Astros 5, Athletics 1: Houston hits a lot of homers, but here they strung together five singles in their three-run sixth inning. Carlos Correa would homer in the ninth, but the game was already over by then. Mike Fiers allowed one run over six innings for his fifth straight win.

Jarrod Dyson bunted and broke up Justin Verlander’s perfect game attempt

Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
15 Comments

Update: Both Verlander and Ausmus took no issue with Dyson’s bunt. Via MLB.com’s Jason Beck:

*

Tigers starter Justin Verlander had thrown five perfect innings against the Mariners and retired Mitch Haniger on strikes to begin the sixth inning. That brought up the speedy Jarrod Dyson. With a 1-1 count in a 4-0 game, Dyson laid a bunt down the first base line. Both Verlander and first baseman Miguel Cabrera charged towards the ball and second baseman Ian Kinsler was late covering the bag, so there was absolutely zero chance Dyson would’ve been out.

In the rather hefty tome of baseball’s unwritten rules, “don’t bunt to break up a perfect game or no-hitter” is somewhere in there. Ben Davis famously and successfully broke up Curt Schilling’s perfect game bid in the eighth inning back in 2001, which earned him some scorn. Then-manager Bob Brenly called the bunt “chicken,” though Schilling didn’t have any unkind words towards Davis after the game. It’s happened a few times since then.

Following the bunt single, Verlander walked Mike Zunino and allowed an infield single to Jean Segura to load the bases. Ben Gamel brought in the Mariners’ first run with a single to center field. Verlander had light at the end of the tunnel when he struck out Robinson Cano for the second out, but served up a two-run double to Nelson Cruz, ending his evening. Shane Greene relieved him.

Verlander and manager Brad Ausmus will almost certainly be asked for their thoughts on Dyson’s bunt after the game. It’ll be interesting to see if they take the high road or the low road.