WBC Pool 2 preview: Team USA, Dominican should advance
Half of the World Baseball Classic's semifinal field is set with Japan and the Netherlands heading to San Francisco after their seeding game in Tokyo on Tuesday morning. Their respective opponents in those semifinals, which are set to begin on Sunday, will be determined this week in Miami as the four teams that advanced from Pools C and D compete in the double-elimination Round 2 to determine which two will advance to San Francisco.
Here's a quick look at the four teams in Pool 2, which begins play Tuesday afternoon at 1 p.m. ET with the surprising Italian team taking on the undefeated Dominican Republic, and continuing on Tuesday night, when Team USA will face Puerto Rico.
Jimmy Rollins, SS, Phillies Brandon Phillips, 2B, Reds Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers Joe Mauer, DH, Twins David Wright, 3B, Mets Eric Hosmer, 1B, Royals Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins Adam Jones, CF, Orioles Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers
Team USA got off to a rough start in this year's WBC as Mexico pushed across four runs against R.A. Dickey and Yovani Gallardo and six relievers held the Americans to just two tallies in a 5-2 opening loss. Italy then jumped out to a 2-0 lead on the US in its second game, but a fifth-inning grand slam by David Wright off Nationals minor leaguer Matt Torra followed by four scoreless innings by Nats lefty Ross Detwiler led to a 6-2 win.
The U.S. was in similar trouble in the double-elimination game against Canada, falling behind 2-0 early, then 3-2 in the sixth. A late outburst of seven runs in the final two frames led to a 9-4 win and a huge sigh of relief on the part of the Americans, for whom reaching Round 2 was supposed to be easy.
Despite the absence of many of the country's best players, the U.S. still has arguably the best roster in the tournament, but its starting pitching was a bit rusty in Round 1, and its powerful lineup hit a mere .233 (10-for-43) with runners in scoring position, with most of that coming in the final two innings of Game 3.
It doesn't help that manager Joe Torre is leaving one of his best players, the Rays' Ben Zobrist, on the bench. Zobrist didn't appear at all against Mexico or Italy, started in place of the 0-for-7 Giancarlo Stanton against Canada and went 3-for-5, but will be back on the bench on Tuesday night against Puerto Rico. I can't fault Torre for wanting to get Stanton's power bat back in the lineup, but Zobrist would seem to be an upgrade over either Hosmer (3-for-13) at first base or Phillips (3-for-14) at second.
Gio Gonzalez, who did not pitch in Round 1, will get the ball against Puerto Rico on Tuesday night. Gonzalez has pitched well for the Nats thus far this spring (8 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 6 K) and will be allowed to throw up to 80 pitches, up from the 65 pitchers were allowed in Round 1. The U.S. will then go back to R.A. Dickey in its second game and Ryan Vogelsong in a potential Game 3.
Jose Reyes, DH, Blue Jays Erick Aybar, SS, Angels Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Blue Jays Hanley Ramirez, 3B, Dodgers Nelson Cruz, RF, Rangers Carlos Santana, C, Indians Ricardo Nanita, LF, Blue Jays (mL) Alejandro De Aza, CF, White Sox
Of the 16 teams that qualified for this tournament, the Dominican Republic was the only one to go undefeated in Round 1, beating Venezuela 9-3, Spain 6-3 and Puerto Rico 4-2, the last of those proving to be nothing more than a seeding game between the two advancing teams. The D.R. has a lineup to rival the USA's, composed of eight major league regulars and 31-year-old minor leaguer Nanita, who has hit .327/.378/.480 in 235 Triple-A games in his career (but was just 1-for-9 with a walk in Round 1).
Robinson Cano has stood out from the pack so far, with nine hits and 15 total bases, totals surpassed in this tournament only by a trio of Cubans who played twice as many games, by virtue of having already finished Round 2, and have since been eliminated.
Dominican manager Tony Peña hasn't announced his Round 2 rotation, but it seems safe to assume that the Padres' Edinson Volquez will start Tuesday afternoon against Italy as he started the first game of Round 1 and was limited to a single inning because of a rain delay. Lefty Wandy Rodriguez and Twins righty Samuel Deduno are the other two Dominican starters, and they are backed up by a deep -- albeit heavily right-handed -- bullpen led by Fernando Rodney, Santiago Casilla, Octavio Dotel, the Royals Kelvin Herrera, likely Astros closer Jose Veras and the Orioles' Pedro Strop.
Angel Pagan, CF, Giants Irving Falu, 2B, Royals Alex Rios, RF, White Sox Carlos Beltran, DH, Cardinals Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals Mike Aviles, SS, Indians Martin Maldonado, 1B, Brewers Andy Gonzalez, 3B, White Sox (mL) Jesus Feliciano, LF, ex-Mets
Puerto Rico's roster is clearly inferior to those of the Dominican and USA. Indeed, it lost its one game against the D.R. Its 3-0 win against Spain was a given (Spain didn't win a game in Round 1). The reason Puerto Rico advanced is that it beat Venezuela. It did that because Nelson Figueroa and Giovanni Soto (the Indians pitcher, not the Rangers catcher whose name is spelled differently) combined to allow the impressive Venezuelan lineup just two runs over seven frames while the Puerto Rican lineup was able to get to a trio of pitchers trying (and failing) to draw the interest of major league teams in Carlos Zambrano, Juan Rincon and Francisco Rodriguez.
Former Marlins skipper Edwin Rodriguez, now the manager of Team Puerto Rico, will turn to 28-year-old minor league righty Mario Santiago in Tuesday night's game against the USA, which is a good indication of how thin Puerto Rico's pitching staff is. Lefty relievers Xavier Cedeño and J.C. Romero are the only Puerto Rican pitchers who appeared in the majors last year, and Romero won't have a team to return to when this tournament ends.
Of course, if this year's WBC has proven anything, it's that gaps in talent that are borne out over full seasons tend to melt away in the heat of a single baseball game. For proof, look no further than . . .
Nick Punto, 2B, Dodgers Chris Denorfia, CF, Padres Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs Alex Liddi, 3B, Mariners Chris Colabello, DH, Twins (NRI) Mike Costanzo, LF, Nationals (mL) Mario Chiarini, RF, Italian League Drew Butera, C, Twins Anthony Granato, SS, Italian League
Even the members of Team Italy are probably shocked that they made it out of Round 1. Italy went 2-4 in the first two WBCs combined, with those wins coming against Australia and Canada. In their first game in this year's tournament, the Italians trailed Mexico 5-4 in the ninth inning with Sergio Romo on the mound and rallied to win in part because former Padres second baseman Edgar Gonzalez misplayed two fly balls in Salt River Fields' sunny leftfield pasture. They then beat Canada again, by a convincing 14-4 final, and lost to the US.
As upsets go, that's hardly the Netherlands beating Cuba in an elimination game, even if it is still shocking that Italy made it to Round 2 while Venezuela, Korea and Mexico didn't. I clearly underestimated the Italians by
Italy will open Round 2 play against the Dominican Republic on Tuesday afternoon with the loser going on to play an elimination game on Wednesday against the loser of Tuesday's 8 p.m. USA-Puerto Rico matchup. The two 1-0 teams will play for the first semifinal spot on Thursday, and the two remaining 1-1 teams will play for the second spot on Friday. The two advancing teams will then play on Saturday afternoon to decide the seeding.
Look for the USA and Dominican Republic to advance. If they do, it will be the first time both made it to the WBC finals in the same year; the US was eliminated in Round 2 in 2006 and the D.R. was eliminated by the Dutch in Round 1 of the 2009 Classic. Neither nation made it to the finals either year.