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.

Video: Adam Wainwright crushes a three-run homer into the second deck

St. Louis Cardinals' Adam Wainwright connects for a three-run triple against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the sixth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
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Adam Wainwright has been bringing the lumber lately. The Cardinals’ pitcher delivered a three-run triple in his previous start, last Wednesday, against the Diamondbacks.

During Monday’s start against the Phillies, he doubled to lead off the third inning. Then, in the top of the fourth, he absolutely demolished a Jeremy Hellickson offering for a three-run home run into the second deck at Busch Stadium to tie the game at three apiece.

It’s the seventh home run of Wainwright’s career and brings his season total up to six RBI, matching a career high.

Video: A Delino DeShields base running gaffe costs the Rangers a run

Texas Rangers' Delino DeShields reacts after he struck out swinging to end the tenth inning of a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Seattle. The Mariners beat the Rangers 4-2 in ten innings. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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The Rangers would’ve easily taken a 2-1 lead in the top of the seventh inning of Monday’s game against the Blue Jays if not for a base running mistake by Delino DeShields.

Facing R.A. Dickey, Mitch Moreland led off the frame with an infield single. He advanced to second base on a passed ball. After Elvis Andrus flied out, Brett Nicholas drew a walk and DeShields singled to right, loading the bases. Gavin Floyd came in to relieve Dickey, facing Rougned Odor.

Odor skied a fly ball to right-center, which seemed like an obvious sacrifice fly. Center fielder Kevin Pillar made the catch and alertly made a strong throw into second base. Moreland tagged up and scored from third, and DeShields was attempting to tag up on the play as well. However, DeShields was tagged out by shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. The play was reviewed and the ruling on the field — that Moreland scored before DeShields was tagged out — was overturned, erasing the run from the board. That left the game in a 1-1 tie.

The Rangers would eventually take a 2-1 lead in the top of the eighth when Nomar Mazara drilled a solo home run to center field off of Floyd. All’s well that ends well, right?

Angel Pagan out four to five days with a strained hamstring

San Francisco Giants' Angel Pagan complains after being called out stealing second base against the San Diego Padres during the ninth inning of a baseball game Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in San Diego. The play was reviewed, and Pagan was ruled safe. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
AP Photo/Gregory Bull
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Giants outfielder Angel Pagan has been diagnosed with a Grade 1 strain of his left hamstring which will leave him out of action for the next four to five days, Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Pagan suffered the injury running the bases during Sunday’s game against the Mets.

The Giants are hopeful that Pagan will avoid needing a stint on the disabled list. For now, they intend to use a combination of Gregor Blanco and Mac Williamson in left field in Pagan’s absence.

Pagan, 34, was hitting well, compiling a .315/.366/.457 triple-slash line along with a pair of homers and stolen bases in 101 plate appearances.

Pablo Sandoval will undergo surgery on his left shoulder

Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval heads to the dugout at the end of the seventh the inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015, in Miami. The Marlins won  14-6. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
AP Photo/Alan Diaz
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Update #2 (8:33 PM EDT): Sandoval is expected to miss the rest of the season, ESPN’s SportsCenter tweets.

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Update (8:06 PM EDT): Per Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe, Sandoval will be undergoing a “significant” operation and faces a “lengthy” rehab.

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Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval will undergo surgery on his left shoulder, per Jon Morosi of FOX Sports. Sandoval visited Dr. James Andrews on Monday, Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald reports. Sandoval had been on the disabled list since April 13 (retroactive to the 11th) with the shoulder injury.

Sandoval has had a tumultuous 2016 season. He showed up to spring training appearing to be in less than ideal shape. He proceeded to hit a meager .204 in 49 spring at-bats and lost out on the third base job to Travis Shaw. Sandoval went hitless with a walk in seven plate appearances to begin the regular season before the injury woes took hold.

The Red Sox haven’t yet released details, including the timetable for Sandoval’s recovery, so once that is known, we’ll provide updates.