Smart shifting puts the Netherlands into the WBC semifinals
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) The semifinal round of the World Baseball Classic is about to go Dutch, thanks to a lot of creative shifting by Team Netherlands.
Stocked with star infielders in Xander Bogaerts, Andrelton Simmons, Didi Gregorius, Jonathan Schoop and Jurickson Profar, manager Hensley Meulens has found a way to get all of them in the lineup.
Meulens, a former big leaguer and now hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants, uses three of them at second base, shortstop and third base. One serves as designated hitter - Simmons was in that role Saturday for an exhibition game against the Arizona Diamondbacks - and Profar has moved to center field.
''Xander says, `I know I'm one of the better shortstops in the American League, but I'm playing third for your team,''' Meulens said.
The Netherlands is already in the semifinals, facing Puerto Rico on Monday at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Two-time champion Japan also is in the final four, with the USA-Dominican Republic winner Saturday night getting the final spot.
The Netherlands team is a blend of Dutch-born players and natives of Curacao and Aruba. Each sub-group took a photo with teammates from the same place, but the players' ability to speak multiple languages unites everyone.
No doubt, though, which of the nations still left in the tournament comes from the most unlikely place. The Netherlands is a soccer-crazy European country where baseball is developing.
''Some people (in the Netherlands) don't even know we're playing in this tournament,'' Meulens said. ''It's not very popular, unlike on the islands. That's all they breathe down there.''
The Netherlands might be the least recognized team remaining, but it has played in all four WBCs and has been this far before.
''We've got a great group of guys, guys that we've known since we were kids,'' Gregorius said. ''It's been a really great run for us.''
The Netherlands reached the championship round in 2013, joining Puerto Rico, Japan and eventual winner Dominican Republic.
''This is the point where you're getting the best teams left,'' Meulens said. ''Our team is better. Our guys are more experienced. We have a couple of pitchers that we didn't have in (Rick) van den Hurk and (Jair) Jurrjens that are pitching great.''
The pitching staff was bolstered by the arrival of Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen on Saturday. Gregorius, who didn't play in 2013, is batting .348 over six games.
Slugger Wladimir Balentien, who played for Seattle and Cincinnati, is the WBC's top hitter at a scorching .591.
''They've made every play,'' Meulens added. ''They know they belong. They're not 19 anymore and thinking, `Can we compete with these guys?' Probably the confidence is higher right now than before.''
The Netherlands' pitchers have posted a 2.94 ERA over 52 innings in the WBC, and as a team it is batting .354 with 25 extra-base hits and 45 runs through the first six games.
Soccer also is big in Curacao, but Meulens began a tradition of success in baseball when he became the first major leaguer from the island in 1989, debuting with the Yankees. Then came longtime outfielder Andruw Jones, bench coach for the Netherlands in this WBC. In 2004, Schoop and Profar were teammates on the team that won the Little League World Series.
''You can get further in life with baseball,'' Gregorius said. ''With soccer you have to go to the Netherlands, so you have to go a different route.''
Meulens, who is heavily involved in promoting the game in the Caribbean area, said many young players' pathway from the island to pro baseball is to play in college in the United States and get drafted.
''It's getting bigger and bigger,'' Meulens said. ''Now the trend is that guys are not signing at (age) 16, but they're coming to the U.S. for high school and college. I said, `You guys got to get an education,' because in our region one out of every 300 makes it to the big leagues.''