By Cliff Corcoran
The United States may have been eliminated, but for fans looking for championship-quality baseball played at playoff intensity by major league talent, the World Baseball Classic is still the only game in town. Just four teams from the original field of 16 remain, and over the next three days those four will be winnowed down to a single champion. Here’s a look at Sunday and Monday’s semifinal games at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.
Puerto Rico @ Japan
Sunday, March 17, 9 p.m. EST
Mario Santiago (0-1, 6.23 ERA) vs. Kenta Maeda (2-0, 0.00)
Puerto Rico was five outs away from being eliminated from the tournament when they trailed Italy 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning on Wednesday, but they rallied to win that game 4-3. They then pulled out a shocking upset by eliminating Team USA, who had beaten them 7-1 on Tuesday, by another 4-3 score on Friday. Their 2-0 loss to the Dominican Republic in Saturday’s seeding game handed the tall task of flying from Miami to San Francisco Saturday night to face the only team ever to win this tournament, Japan, Sunday night, but Puerto Rico has already shown remarkable resilience in this tournament. Manager Edwin Rodriguez wisely used Saturday’s non-elimination game to rest catcher Yadier Molina, who has been one of Puerto Rico’s two most valuable players in this tournament along with center fielder and leadoff hitter Angel Pagan.
In stark contrast, Japan hasn’t played a WBC game since beating the Netherlands 10-6 in their seeding game on Tuesday. They then flew to Arizona where they stayed sharp with exhibition games against the Giants and Cubs on Thursday and Friday. Sunday night’s semifinal will mark the first time in this tournament that they’ve faced elimination as they went 5-1 in pool play, their only loss coming in the Round 1 game against since-eliminated Cuba, in contrast to Puerto Rico’s 4-3.
Japan is the only nation to have won the WBC, beating Cuba in the finals in 2006 and South Korea in 2009. Those championship teams were thick with players who subsequently made the jump to the major leagues, including Daisuke Matsuzaka, Koji Uehara, Kosuke Fukudome, Akinori Iwamura and Tsuyoshi Wada in 2006 and Yu Darvish, Norichika Aoki, Hisashi Iwakuma, Munenori Kawasaki, Hiroyuki Nakajima and Kyuji Fujikawa in 2009. This year’s team lacks established Japanese major leaguers such as Ichiro Suzuki, Darvish, or Aoki, but it seems a safe bet that several of the players on this year’s Team Japan will become major leaguers before the next WBC in 2017.
One such player could be Japan’s starter in this game, Kenta Maeda, a 24-year-old righty who, in his two previous starts in this tournament against China and the Netherlands, has thrown ten scoreless innings allowing just two hits and a walk while striking out 15. In the 2012 regular season, he used his pinpoint control, deep repertoire, and big-breaking curve to post a 1.53 ERA in 206 1/3 innings for the Hiroshima Carp. Japan’s hitting stars in this tournament have been catcher Shinnosuke Abe (.316/.350/.684 with two home runs), right fielder Yoshio Itoi (.316/.500/.579 with two stolen bases), and third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda (.389/.450/.667).
Opposing Maeda Sunday night will be Mario Santiago, a 28-year-old righty out of the Royals’ system who signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers this winter and has only made four starts above Double-A in his career. Santiago has made just one prior appearance in this tournament, starting the first game of Round 2 against the United States and allowing three runs in 4 1/3 innings while taking the loss.
Netherlands @ Dominican Republic
Monday, March 18, 9 p.m. EST
Diegomar Markwell (2-0, 0.90 ERA) vs. Edinson Volquez (0-0, 6.75)
If Sunday night’s semifinal is a mismatch on paper, Monday night’s is a grudge match, as the upstart Netherlands eliminated the heavily favored Dominican team in Round 1 in 2009 by eking out a pair of one-run victories. This year, the Netherlands has again played the dark horse. The Dutch upset Korea 5-0 in their first game in Round 1, thereby securing the tie-breaker that sent them into Round 2. Once there, they beat the heavily favored Cuban team twice, the second time coming within four outs of elimination before a huge two-out, game-tying home run by Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons in the bottom of the eighth and a walk-off rally in the bottom of the ninth sent Cuba home and the Netherlands to San Francisco.
In 2009, the Dutch team won only those two games against the Dominican Republic, and did so primarily on the strength of their pitching, scratching and scraping for just enough runs. This year’s team is far more talented, particularly on offense, which features some of the game’s top infield prospects. In addition to the 23-year-old Simmons, who will spend his first full season as the Braves’ shortstop in 2013, the Netherlands’ infield features the Red Sox’s top prospect, 20-year-old Xander Bogaerts, the Orioles’ top hitting prospect, 21-year-old second baseman Jonathan Schoop (pronounced “skope”), and, new for this round, the top prospect in all of baseball, 20-year-old Rangers shortstop Jurickson Profar.
Bogaerts, Simmons, and Profar are all shortstops by trade, but Bogaerts has been playing third base in this tournament and Dutch manager Hensley Meulens, the Giants’ hitting coach, has said that Profar will start at second base (and hit second) in this game, likely pushing Schoop to designated hitter and veteran Andruw Jones to the outfield. The Netherlands have also added Dodgers relief ace Kenley Jansen to their roster for this round, replacing the injured Jonatan Isenia just as Profar is replacing the injured Yurendell de Caster.
As impressive as the Dutch have been thus far in the tournament, they have their work cut out for them in facing the Dominican Republic, who are a perfect 6-0 thus far and boast the most dangerous lineup and best bullpen remaining in the tournament (Japan has the edge in starting pitching). The Netherlands will thus need a big outing from 32-year-old lefty Diegomar Markwell, who is Jones’ nephew, a pitcher who washed out of the Blue Jays’ system a decade ago. He has delivered thus far in this tournament, throwing four scoreless innings in the Netherlands’ upset of Korea in Round 1 and holding Cuba to one run on a solo home run over six innings while scattering eight other hits in the first of the Netherlands’ two victories over Cuba in Round 2 (though it’s worth noting that he didn’t strike out a single batter in the latter game).
Markwell’s mound opponent in this game will be Padres righty Edinson Volquez, whose first start in this tournament was ended after one inning due to a rain delay, and whose second saw him allow four runs in 4 1/3 innings against Italy, necessitating a comeback from the powerful Dominican lineup. The Dominican Republic and Japan are the clear favorites in these games, but Puerto Rico and the Netherlands are talented teams that have shown remarkable resiliency thus far in the tournament. This year’s WBC has continually reminded us that any team can beat any other in a single baseball game, which, in addition to the quality and intensity of the play, has made it a welcome alternative to the glorified scrimmages of major league exhibition play. Part of me wishes we could have March baseball like this every year, but after the next three games, we won’t see it again until 2017.