Pool 1: Petco Park, San Diego
Japan had a very similar experience to the U.S. in Round 1. Many thought the margin of victory in its first game, a 4-0 win over China, was too small, but Japan made up for it by mercying pool-rival Korea 14-2 in seven innings to advance to Round 2. Japan then lost a tight, 1-0 seeding game to Korea. That last result exposed the fallacy of the seeding game -- Japan outscored Korea 14-3 in Round 1, yet enters Round 2 as the second seed behind No. 1 Korea. Despite that seeding, the defending WBC champs remain the best team in Pool 1, and will get a chance to prove it with a rematch of last year's final against Cuba on Sunday afternoon. Japan's All-Star lineup does need to perk up a bit, but the pitching staff, which I noted as its primary strength in my Round 1 preview, has allowed just three runs in three games. Only Puerto Rico, which never had to play intended pool rival the Dominican Republic, was stingier.
Round 1 MVP: Hiroyuki Nakajima, SS. Nakajima does everything well. He hits for average, draws walks and boasts a 20/20 power-speed combo. Hitting second in the Japanese lineup, he made just four outs in 13 plate appearances in Round 1. In Japan's clinching game against Korea, he singled, walked, reached on an error and doubled twice. In Japan's 1-0 seeding-game loss to Korea, Nakajima was the only Japanese player to reach third base.
One of just two undefeated teams entering Round 2, Cuba had a tougher path to 3-0 than undefeated Puerto Rico. Yet, Cuba also came out of the weakest pool in Round 1 and still needed an eighth-inning pinch-hit home run from backup catcher Yosbany Pereza to beat the surprising Australian team. The greatest concern to arise from that game was veteran ace Pedro Luis Lazo's poor relief appearance. Cuba's offense has been firing on all cylinders, averaging 9.7 runs per game, but the team's pitchers need to step it up in Round 2.
Round 1 MVP:Yoennis Cespedes, CF.With honorable-mention status given to Pereza, who only started the seeding game, and left fielder Frederich Cepeda, who leads the team with three home runs but got picked off first base against Australia, Cuba's Round 1 MVP was Cespedes. The center fielder homered in each of Cuba's first two games, then led off the seeding game with a triple. Cespedes leads Cuba in average and runs scored, and leads the entire WBC field in hits and total bases.
Korea won three games in Round 1, but two of them came against the desperately overmatched China and Chinese Taipei. Korea scored 23 runs in those two games, but just three more in their two games against Japan. So despite Korea's monstrous heart of the order, there remain doubts about the team's ability to hit quality pitching. Rather, look for Korea to play tighter, low-scoring games in Round 2, as its pitching has impressed. Though Korea was mercied by Japan in their first meeting, the team didn't allow a run in any of its other three games, including the seeding-game rematch with Japan, and allowed an average of just 4.3 hits in those three shutouts. The 1-0 seeding-game victory over Japan proves that Korea can surprise, but a trip to the semifinals seems unlikely.
Round 1 MVP:Jung Keun Bong, LHP.In its first three Round 1 games, Korea crushed the two weaker teams in the pool and was crushed by the one superior team. That was actually less than what was expected of Korea going in. But the proud nation really shined in the 1-0 victory over Japan, and a great deal of the credit for that win can be given to lefty Jung Keun Bong, who held mighty Japan scoreless on three hits while stretching his allotted 70 pitches over 5 1/3 innings. Bong also threw three scoreless innings against China on just 23 pitches and didn't walk a batter in Round 1.
Mexico's 10.25 runs per game edged out Cuba for the highest Round 1 average, but most of those runs came in a pair of games against South Africa and Australia in which the Mexicans outscored their competition 30-4. In its other two games -- an upset loss to Australia and seeding-game loss to Cuba -- Mexico was outscored 33-11. While Mexico scored the most runs in Round 1, it also allowed the most, posting a 10.74 ERA -- higher than every other team except 0-2 South Africa. Worse yet, Mexico was mercied in both of its losses. Mexico's best pitcher is Royals closer Joakim Soria, who only threw one inning in his team's four first-round games. Mexico's best starter, Mets lefty Oliver Perez, was smacked around by Australia. It will be interesting to see how the initial matchup with near-opposite Korea plays out, but Mexico seems likely to be the first Pool 1 team eliminated.
Round 1 MVP:Karim Garcia, RF. Dubbed "The Latino Bambino" as a member of Korea's Lotte Giants in 2008, the 33-year-old right-fielder was never much more than a failed prospect in the U.S. He didn't even play in Mexico's loss to Australia and went 0-for-5 with a walk against South Africa. But he led the offensive attack in the decisive rematch with the Aussies and added a solo homer against Cuba in the seeding game. With three home runs, he's tied with Cuba's Frederich Cepeda for the most in the tournament. Also, he leads the Mexican team in total bases.
Pool 2: Dolphin Stadium, Miami
As I said above, the U.S.'s Round 1 performance mimicked that of Japan. After eking out a 6-5 win over Canada, Team USA nearly mercied Venezuela (16-5) to advance to Round 2. But then the U.S. lost a tighter, low-scoring contest to Venezuela in the seeding game (5-3) and emerged from Pool C as the second seed behind Venezuela despite having outscored them 18-10. It's interesting to note that the U.S. gave up exactly five runs in each of its Round 1 games. That leaves it with the second-highest ERA of teams entering Round 2 behind Mexico. Part of the reason for that is manager Davey Johnson essentially threw the seeding game by allowing Jeremy Guthrie to give up four runs in relief in an effort to give the Orioles starter some work. Still, no American starter finished four full innings and the team's best start came from Cubs lefty Ted Lilly, who allowed one run in three frames. The Round 1 ERA of the U.S.'s four starters (including Guthrie) was 7.71, while American relievers posted a solid 3.52. Like Japan, the U.S. has the most talented team in its pool, but needs its offense to pick up the pace in Round 2.
Round 1 MVP:Adam Dunn, RF.Dunn was a late addition to the U.S. roster, but he's been the key to the offensive attack. Drawing six walks and cracking a pair of home runs, Dunn made just three outs in his 12 Round 1 plate appearances, scored six runs and added a nice sliding catch in right field against Canada for good measure.
Puerto Rico went undefeated in Round 1, but did so by facing the Netherlands twice and Panama once, giving them the easiest Round 1 schedule of the tournament. Faced with such underwhelming competition, Puerto Rico allowed just one run in all of Round 1. That tally came off Pirates starter Ian Snell in Puerto Rico's first confrontation with the Netherlands. It's the Netherlands that Puerto Rico has to thank for it's easy Round 1 slate, as the Dutch kept the Dominican Republic in the losers' bracket. If there's any concern about Puerto Rico's first-round performance, it's that the well-staffed offense managed just eight runs off Dutch pitching in two meetings. Round 2 will tell us if that had more to do with the quality of the Netherlands' pitching or a weakness in the Puerto Rican offense.
Round 1 MVP:Carlos Delgado, 1B. In 11 first-round plate appearances, Delgado made just one out. One. In addition to drawing five walks -- including a leadoff walk that kick-started the game-winning rally in the eighth inning of Puerto Rico's first game against the Netherlands -- Delgado picked up five hits (three for extra bases) and even stole a base. He leads the tournament in batting average (.833), on-base percentage (.917) and slugging percentage (1.667).
Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo received tremendous criticism for burning his ace, Seattle starter Felix Hernandez, in relief in his team's first game against lowly Italy, but it turns out all Venezuela had to do to advance to Round 2 was to beat Italy twice, which is exactly what they did. Venezuela beat Italy by a combined score of 17-1, but was outscored 18-11 in the process of splitting a pair of games with the USA. The one constant there is the Venezuelan offense, which averaged seven runs a game in Round 2. By upsetting the U.S. in the seeding game, Venezuela landed a matchup with the Netherlands to start Round 2, and it will be interesting to see how this team performs against the stingy Dutch pitching Saturday afternoon, particularly with Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordoñez having broken out of their early slumps. Though Venezuela's pitching doesn't inspire much confidence, the team has the advantage of starting off against the Netherlands. After that, the Venezuelans must face the U.S. and/or Puerto Rico. Sojo would be wise to save Hernandez for the big boys this time around.
Round 1 MVP:Jose Lopez, 2B. Mariners second baseman Jose Lopez didn't even play in Venezuela's seeding-game win over the U.S., but he did enough in the first three games to earn first-round MVP honors, going 7-for-10 with six extra-base hits, two walks and six runs scored. Lopez leads the WBC in with five doubles, is tied for the WBC lead in hits and ranks second in runs and total bases.
By upsetting the Dominican Republic twice and becoming the only "second-division" team to impinge the second-round hegemony of the tournament's presumptive elite eight, the Netherlands have been the story of the WBC to this point. The secret to their success has been pitching and an ability to take advantage of opponents' mistakes. The Netherlands scored just one earned run in the two wins over the Dominican Republic, but allowed just three runs to the powerful Dominican offense and capitalized on six Dominican errors to score four unearned runs. In the first matchup against Puerto Rico, the Netherlands took a 1-0 lead into the eighth, but Puerto Rico played errorless ball and the Dutch pitching, which leads the field in walks issued with 50 percent more than the next wildest staff, just couldn't hold down the powerful Puerto Ricans, who prevailed 3-1. In the seeding-game rematch, Puerto Rico again avoided making any errors and the Netherlands were shut out. It's been a great story, but there's little hope for the Netherlands in Round 2. As a team, the Dutch hit a tournament-worst .151/.207/.175 in Round 1 -- a line worse than those of Panama or Chinese Taipei, two teams which combined to go 0-4 and score a grand total of one combined run in Round 1. Not to mention a whopping 48 strikeouts in 126 at-bats. The Netherlands' 5-0 loss to Puerto Rico in the seeding game looked like a sign of things to come.
Round 1 MVP: Sir Eugene Kingsale, OF. Given that pitching was the primary reason for the Netherlands advancing to Round 2, it's tempting to pick a pitcher as the Round 1 MVP. But all the pitching in the world won't win a game if the offense doesn't score, and the Dutch offensive attack has been so weak that I have to give the MVP to the one player who is making a constant contribution at the plate, Sir Eugene Kingsale. Kingsale was in the middle of two of the Netherlands' three first-round rallies. He led off the Netherlands' first game with an infield single and came around to score as the Dutch pushed across three unearned, first-inning runs against the Dominican Republic and went on to win 3-2. In the rematch against the D.R., Kingsale tied up the game with an RBI single in the bottom of the 11th and came around to score the clinching run as the Netherlands won 2-1. Kingsale is hitting .313 in the tournament and leads the Dutch in runs, hits and total bases. Honorable mention goes to righty Robbie Cordemans, who leads the team with 4 2/3 scoreless innings, albeit with a disturbing 1:4 K/BB ratio that reflects his team's 0.73 K/BB.