Can Team USA finally break through in star-studded pool to reach finals of WBC?

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Wednesday March 15th, 2017

Pool F of the 2017 World Baseball Classic kicked off at Petco Park on Tuesday night, with Yadier Molina stealing the show in leading Puerto Rico to a 3–1 win over the Dominican Republic—a loss that snapped the latter's 11-game WBC winning streak, which dated back to 2009. On Wednesday night, the other two teams in the pool, the United States and Venezuela, play their first game of the second round.

The four teams will eventually complete a round-robin, with the top two joining Japan and the Netherlands (who finished first and second, respectively, in Pool E) in the Championship Round, which will be played at Dodger Stadium from March 20 to 22. Here's a closer look at Pool F, which is full of major league stars but has seen some surprisingly strong contributions from fringe players and minor leaguers, particularly on the pitching side.

United States

Team USA went 2–1 in Pool C, winning a 3–2 squeaker in 10 innings over Colombia in its March 10 opener, squandering a five-run lead against the Dominican Republic en route to a 7–5 loss on March 10, and then pounding Canada, 8–0, on Sunday to advance. Even without big names such as Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer (who was scratched due to injury) or Noah Syndergaard, the most impressive aspect of the team has been its dominant starting pitching. Chris Archer, Marcus Stroman and Danny Duffy have combined for 12 2/3 shutout innings, allowing just five hits and striking out 14 without issuing a single walk. Meanwhile, seven of the 10 relievers used by manager Jim Leyland have held opponents scoreless, with Tyler Clippard (three shutout innings in two appearances) getting the most work. Mychal Givens gave up a pair of runs to Colombia, and Tanner Roark and Andrew Miller combined to allow seven runs and three home runs in two innings against the D.R., though they were separated by a scoreless inning from David Robertson.

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Archer's desire to remain on his throwing schedule—which lines him up for Thursday, when neither Team USA nor the Rays' major league squad has a scheduled game—means that Leyland will turn to Mariners lefty Drew Smyly, a member of his staff in Detroit in 2012 and '13, to start against Venezuela. Smyly, who over the winter was dealt from Tampa Bay to Seattle, is coming off a career-worst 4.88 ERA in a career-high 175 1/3 innings. Stroman will start against Puerto Rico on Friday, and Duffy will face the Dominican Republic on Saturday.

As for the offense, it has yet to get humming. The team is hitting a combined .240/.313/.394 with just a pair of homers, one by Buster Posey and the other by Nolan Arenado, both against Canada. Lefties Christian Yelich (5-for-10 with a pair of doubles), Brandon Crawford (5-for-11 with three doubles) and Eric Hosmer (3-for-10 with two doubles) have been the team's biggest bats, but Arenado, Giancarlo Stanton—who has successively batted sixth, seventh and eighth in the three games—and Paul Goldschmidt have each been held to one hit apiece, though they've gotten on base six other times because of walks and hit-by-pitches. Jonathan Lucroy, Daniel Murphy and Andrew McCutchen are all hitless, though each has started just one game, as Leyland has stuck with a fairly set lineup.

Venezuela

While Venezuela looks great on paper thanks to its stacked roster, it was lucky to survive the first round due to shoddy pitching. Playing in Mexico's mile-high Estadio Charros de Jalisco, the Venezuelans gave up at least 10 runs in their first three games, losing 11–0 to Puerto Rico in an opener last Friday in a game that was terminated in the seventh inning, then beating Italy 11–10 in 10 innings on Saturday and losing to Mexico 11–9 on Sunday. The last game was marked by controversy regarding the pool tiebreaker rules and specifically what constituted a "defensive inning"; Mexico, which lost to Italy, 10–9, by allowing five runs without recording an out in the bottom of the ninth, felt it should have received credit for a full inning, which seems absurd given standard statistical practices (their pitchers totaled only 24 outs, or eight innings), but the ambiguity of the rule and the failure to clarify beforehand is the fault of MLB. The upshot is that Venezuela (which allowed 1.11 runs per defensive inning) and not Mexico (1.12) played the tiebreaker game against Italy (1.06). Trailing 2–1 going into the final frame, Venezuela rallied for three runs in the ninth via a solo homer by Miguel Cabrera, a walk, two hits and a squeeze play to beat the Italians, 4–3.

Venezuela, which is managed by longtime MLB shortstop Omar Vizquel, hasn't gotten much in the way of starting pitching. Felix Hernandez lasted just 2 2/3 innings against Puerto Rico, allowing two runs (one earned); he'll get the call against Team USA on Wednesday night. Both Martin Perez and Yusmeiro Petit were torched in their respective outings. Omar Bencomo, a 28-year-old righty who spent 2016 pitching in the Twins' system, gave the team its best start with a three-inning, one-run showing in the tiebreaker game. As for the bullpen, closer Francisco Rodriguez has been shaky in his two outings, both against Italy; he blew the save in the first one and allowed a homer to Alex Liddi in the second. Only two of the team's 15 pitchers used thus far have yet to allow a run—Silvino Bracho (a Diamondbacks reliever) and Robert Suarez (a Mexican League pitcher), though they've totaled just two innings. Jhoulys Chacin, Wil Ledezma, Bruce Rondon and Deolis Guera, other semi-familiar names from MLB rosters, have been lit up. The bottom line is that there's no way this team advances to Los Angeles without better pitching performances.

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In the high altitude of Jalisco, the Venezuelan offense has put up big numbers, with the team hitting a combined .301/.388/.441. Alcides Escobar and Martin Prado each have seven hits and on-base percentages of .500, and Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Salvador Perez have all homered. The latter, however, was lost for the tournament after a home plate collision with Royals teammate Drew Butera in the first game against Italy; Robinson Chirinos is now the starting catcher, with Jesus Flores—a onetime prospect who was serving as the team's bullpen catcher—now the backup. Opposing pitchers have accorded the Venezuelan lineup considerable respect, issuing 17 walks; Martinez (four) and Cabrera (three) have been pitched to with particular care, with free-swinging Rougned Odor as the only player who started a game who has yet to draw a walk. Odubel Herrera (1-for-10) is the only member of the lineup who is really slumping.

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Dominican Republic

Champions in 2013, the Dominican Republic hadn't lost in the WBC since falling twice to the Netherlands in the group stage in '09 until Tuesday's loss to Puerto Rico. In the first round, the Dominicans rolled over Canada, came back to beat Team USA and then trounced Colombia in 11 innings by scoring seven runs in the last frame of the latter game, benefiting from the new rules that let teams start the 11th with runners at first and second and nobody out. Managed by Tony Pena, the exuberant and star-studded squad has outscored its opponents 27–13 thus far.

The Dominicans have generally gotten good starting pitching, with Carlos Martinez turning in a pair of four-inning performances against Canada and Puerto Rico, respectively, and allowing a combined three runs (one earned). Edinson Volzuez was shakier against the U.S., though just one of the three runs he allowed in 3 1/3 innings was earned; he'll get the start against Venezuela on Thursday. Wily Peralta turned in a four-inning, one-run performance against Colombia, but he returned to the Brewers after the round and was replaced by Ervin Santana, who will start the rematch against Team USA on Saturday. With a loss under their belts already, the Dominicans have no margin for error—they have to win both games to have any hope of advancing to the Championship Round.

Meanwhile, the Dominican bullpen has been particularly impressive, combining for a 2.53 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings. Fernando Abad, Dellin Betances, Alex Colome, Jeurys Famila and Enny Romero all have multiple scoreless outings under their belts, and Betances and Hansel Robles each have thrown a total of three innings. Though Familia has only totaled 2 1/3 innings, the Mets have grumbled about his being used in three of the four games, including back-to-back against the US (against whom he recorded the save) and Colombia.

On the offensive side, the D.R. has been a juggernaut, hitting a combined .310/.394/.503. Nelson Cruz has homered twice, and Jose Bautista, Manny Machado, Starling Marte and Welington Castillo have each gone deep once. Machado earned MVP honors in the opening round by going 5-for-14, adding some sterling defensive play; he, Gregory Polanco and Carlos Santana are tied for the team high with six hits overall. Robinson Cano, though he's gone just 2-for-13, has drawn six of the team's 19 walks. Bautista and Castillo are tied for the team lead with five RBIs, and Cruz (.308/.436/.846) has the top OPS (1.252) among players with more than one game played (Marte, who went 3-for-4 with a double in addition to his homer, is at 2.500). Though they've made a total of six errors, the Dominicans have turned seven double plays and generally flashed impressive leather.

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Puerto Rico

Team Puerto Rico, the runner-up in 2013, has yet to lose a game in this tournament, outscoring its opponents by a whopping 32–8 margin. Managed by Edwin Rodriguez, the Puerto Ricans rolled up an abbreviated 11–0 win against Venezuela, beat Mexico, 9–4, and then topped Italy, 9–3, in the first round before Tuesday night's impressive win over the Dominican Republic. Puerto Rico has succeeded despite a lack of name-brand pitching; starters Seth Lugo (Mets), Jorge Lopez (Brewers), Jose Berrios (Twins) and Orlando Roman (Japan) have nonetheless combined to allow just five runs in 17 innings, with all but Roman lasting at least five frames and Berrios the only one to allow more than one run.

Puerto Rico's bullpen has been effective as well. Hector Santiago, who came on in relief of Roman in the third inning on Tuesday, turned in 2 2/3 shutout innings after a shakier outing against Mexico. Seven other relievers have taken the ball without being scored upon, with Joe Jimenez (Tigers), Joseph Colon (Indians) and Edwin Diaz (Mariners) each doing so twice.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico's star-laden lineup—many members of which are sporting bleach-blond locks and/or facial hair—has produced no shortage of fireworks, with the team hitting a combined .326/.412/.597. Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa (who's played third base while Lindor has handled shortstop) and Molina have each homered twice, and Javier Baez and T.J. Rivera have each gone yard once. Lindor, Carlos Beltran and Eddie Rosario are tied for the team lead with six hits, and all three have an OPS of at least 1.200, led by Rosario's 1.492. Molina, Correa and Baez are tied for the team lead with five RBIs. While perhaps less flashy than the Dominicans, Puerto Rico's defense has produced four double plays, and Baez may have provided the tournament's signature defensive moment with his no-look tag of would-be base stealer Cruz on a perfect throw from Molina on Tuesday night. All told, with a win against the bracket’s toughest opponents under their belts, the Puerto Ricans are one step closer to the finals.

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