Friday March 20th, 2009

Of the four semifinalists, Venezuela is both the least expected and the team that finished pool play with the best record. For that it owes some debt of thanks to the Dominican Republic's surprising first-round exit. Three of Venezuela's six wins came against Italy (twice) and the Netherlands, the latter of whom reached Round 2 in place of the D.R. Of the remaining three wins, two came against the USA in seeding games which U.S. manager Davey Johnson practically threw away by leaving struggling pitchers on the mound to get work.

Venezuela's two remaining games were a 15-6 loss to the U.S. in Round 1 and a stunning 2-0 victory over Puerto Rico in Round 2. The latter owed a great deal to the performances of Mariners' ace Felix Hernandez (who pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out seven), Red Sox non-roster invitee Enrique Gonzalez (who pitched two scoreless frames of his own) and single-season saves leader Francisco Rodriguez (who retired the last four men in order).

Hernandez would be on regular rest for Saturday night's semi (9:00 ET, ESPN), but manager Luis Sojo may prefer to go with Carlos Silva and save Hernandez for the final. If Sojo goes that route, he'll put his chances of getting there at significant risk. Venezuela has a potent offense, but it's a bit banged up, with third baseman Melvin Mora nursing a sore hamstring and catcher Ramon Hernandez, whose home run provided one of the two runs in that win over Puerto Rico, a sore knee. That offense also managed just nine runs in 23 1/3 innings (or 3.47 runs per nine) in Round 2 against pitchers not named Jeremy Guthrie.

That spells trouble for Venezuela, because Korea can pitch. In its two wins over Japan, Korea held its rivals to just one run total. Against lesser opponents in Round 1,the Koreans didn't allow a single run. In Round 2 they allowed only two runs to hot-hitting Mexico, the only non-Asian team that they've played thus far. Korea will hold back emergent ace Jung Keun Bong, who was largely responsible for the two wins over Japan, for the final, but the dropoff from Bong to the rest of the Korean staff isn't nearly as sharp as the dropoff from Hernandez to the second-best Venezuelan starter, particularly given the fact that Armando Galarraga won't be available on Saturday after pitching in the Round 2 seeding game against the U.S. Suk-Min Yoon, who pitched six shutout innings in a Round 1 start over Chinese Taipei and tossed 3 2/3 more scoreless innings of relief in Round 2, is the likely semifinal starter for Korea.

Korea's offense profiles similarly to Venezuela's. The heart of Korea's batting order is populated by monstrous mashers such as first-baseman Tae Kyun Kim and third-sacker Bum Ho Lee, but while Korea stomped on its lesser opponents, averaging 10 1/3 runs against China, Chinese Taipei and Mexico, it has scored just nine runs in four games against Japan's stellar pitching.

The real X-factor here is Hernandez. If Sojo starts him on Saturday, Venezuela has a good shot to make the final. If not, Korea has to be considered the favorite on Saturday night.

Nippon Professional Baseball is widely recognized as offering the highest level of play outside of the American major leagues. The U.S. beat Japan 4-3 in the second round of the 2006 WBC, but an anticipated rematch in the semifinals or finals didn't happen because the U.S. was eliminated. This year, baseball gets its wish, though perhaps a game earlier than it would have liked.

Japan's presence in Sunday night's semifinal (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) is well-earned, as it has played fellow semifinalist Korea four times and had to beat top contender Cuba twice in order to survive Round 2. The only "second division" opponent that the Japanese have faced is China, which they beat 5-0 in the first game of the tournament.

Throughout the event, it has been Japan's pitching leading the way. China and Cuba failed to score a run in three games against Japan, while Korea has managed just nine runs in four games against Japanese pitching, and one of those runs was unearned. As a team, Japan has posted a 1.20 ERA and an 0.95 WHIP. Throw out the game against China, and Japan has still allowed an average of just 1.5 runs in six games against Korea and Cuba.

The catch is that, save for a 14-run outburst in its first game against Korea in Round 1, the Japanese haven't been scoring all that much themselves, which is how Korea was able to beat them twice. Setting aside that first game against Korea, Japan has scored just 3.7 runs per game, which includes its somewhat disappointing showing against China, a team that many thought they should have beaten more severely.

The top hitters for Japan thus far have been Seattle Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima (.375/.400/.542), Yokohama BayStars slugging third baseman Shuichi Murata (.320/.379/.560) and Seibu Lions five-tool shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima (.286/.476/.429). None has put up the sort of video-game numbers you might expect from such a small sample. Also, Nakajima missed the first two games of Round 2 due to illness and has been hitless since returning, while Murata suffered a pulled hamstring in the Round 2 seeding game against Korea and will miss both the semifinals and finals.

Team USA, meanwhile, hardly resembles the squad that entered the tournament, as roughly half of its starting lineup has gone down with injuries. First it was second baseman Dustin Pedroia and designated hitter Chipper Jones (obliques), then left fielder Ryan Braun (intercostal) and first baseman Kevin Youkilis (ankle), and now third baseman David Wright is questionable after fouling a ball off his toe in the Round 2 seeding game against Venezuela. That doesn't count reliever Matt Lindstrom, who left the team due to a shoulder injury, or the various players who pulled their names off the original 28-man roster -- center fielder Grady Sizemore (groin) and closers Joe Nathan (elbow), B.J. Ryan (mechanics) and Brian Fuentes (family), or the players on the provisional roster now unavailable due to injury, including outfielder Vernon Wells (hamstring) and, most significantly, first baseman Derrek Lee (quadriceps).

In part because of Lee's unavailability, the Youkilis injury hurts the most. Absent a more experienced first-baseman, Adam Dunn manned the position in the USA's last game against Venezuela and made two throws so atrociously off line that Davey Johnson is now said to be leaning toward playing utilityman Mark DeRosa at first base against the wishes of DeRosa's major league team, the Cleveland Indians. Dunn played 19 games at first base for the Diamondbacks last year, but played just two at the position in his last three seasons with the Reds. DeRosa, meanwhile, has played a mere 13 games at first base in his major league career, though unlike Dunn, he is an experienced infielder.

Braun is still with the team, but his availability remains in question. Wright is likely to play despite losing a toe nail, but he might have to DH. If so, that would create an issue with Derek Jeter (who had been DH-ing with Jimmy Rollins at shortstop), but it would open a spot at third base for new addition Evan Longoria of the Rays. Longoria was added to fill Jones' spot, and Brian Roberts filled in splendidly for Pedroia in Round 2. Still, there are two open roster spots (left vacant by Youkilis and Lindstrom) that the USA would be well-advised to take advantage of before Sunday's game. The top candidates to take those spots are White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski and Cardinals outfielder Ryan Ludwick. Pierzynski's presence on the bench would give Johnson the flexibility to play the matchups with his other catchers, lefty-hitting Brian McCann and righty-swinging Chris Iannetta. Ludwick would give Johnson a right-handed power bat to replace Braun and use as a complement to the left-handed Dunn and Curtis Granderson.

It is particularly troubling that the U.S.'s injury problems are attacking the offense, because its pitching is not why it has made it this far. The United States' team ERA of 6.18 is by far the worst of the four semifinalists, and only Mexico had a worse mark among the eight teams that made it to Round 2. Part of the problem has been the long ball, as the U.S. has allowed 10 home runs in seven games. Another part of the problem has been Johnson, who has thus far managed the World Baseball Classic as though it's spring training.

The three U.S. loses can all be at least partially blamed on Johnson's decision to let a struggling pitcher remain in the game. He did it with Guthrie in each of the two seeding-game loses to Venezuela, and did it with Jake Peavy in the Round 2 loss to Puerto Rico. Those three outings alone, totaling 5 2/3 innings, yielded more than a third of the runs that the U.S. has allowed in this tournament. Still, even if you take those performances out of the stat line, Team USA's ERA remains an unpleasant 4.83, and that includes a second-round game against the punchless Netherlands, the only team thus far to score fewer than five runs in a game against the U.S. (they scored three).

Being defensively compromised at first base won't help the Americans keep runs off the board, particularly against a team like Japan that will happily bunt and slap balls in the direction of the replacement first baseman. That puts extra pressure on the offense, which is now without Youkilis, who had three home runs and six walks in six games, and likely still without Braun, who went 7-for-17 with a double and a foul home run in the first five games. Longoria was swinging a hot bat in spring training with the Rays, but the Japanese pitching staff should prove to be a much more difficult challenge than the non-roster invitees and minor leaguers that Longoria had been facing in Florida.

The one advantage the U.S. might have is that the projected Japanese starter for Sunday night is Daisuke Matsuzaka (2-0, 1.80), the one pitcher on Team Japan who major league batters are familiar with. American Leaguers Longoria, Roberts, Granderson and Jeter all have excellent career marks against Matsuzaka, albeit in very small samples. Of course, Japanese manager Tatsunori Hara is unlikely to hesitate to pull Matsuzaka should he run into trouble, as his bullpen is loaded with talented starting pitchers. (Hara even joked on Thursday night that he might start young phenom Yu Darvish in the semi because U.S. major league hitters have never faced him.)

Johnson announced that Roy Oswalt will get the start against Japan. Oswalt pitched four scoreless innings when the United States avoided elimination by beating the Netherlands 9-3 last Sunday. Oswalt better continue this success Sunday night, as the Japanese pitching staff will leave little room for error.

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