World Baseball Classic semifinals preview: Can Team USA bring home the title?
- Four teams remain alive in the 2017 WBC, but which one will emerge as the tournament champion? Breaking down the United States, Japan, the Netherlands and Puerto Rico as they get ready for the semifinals.
With a stirring victory over a star-studded Dominican Republic squad on Saturday night—highlighted by Giancarlo Stanton's towering home run and Adam Jones's spectacular homer-stealing grab—Team USA advanced to the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic for the first time since 2009. They'll square off against Japan on Tuesday at 6 p.m. Pacific Time at Dodger Stadium; the Netherlands and Puerto Rico, the other two semifinalists, play at the same time on Monday. The two winners will then play for the championship on Wednesday night in the same time slot. Here's a quick breakdown of the four remaining teams.
For the second tournament in a row, manager Hensley Meulens and pitching coach Bert Blyleven have guided the Dutch to the semifinals. After going 2–1 in Pool A—beating South Korea and Chinese Taipei but losing to upstart Israel—those lovable honkballers bounced back from an 8–6 loss to Japan in 11 innings to smother both Israel (12–2) and Cuba (14–1) in games shortened by the 10-run mercy rule. Overall, they've outscored opponents by a hefty 45–20 margin.
Starting against Puerto Rico is Rick van den Hurk, a 31-year-old Dutch-born righty who never found much success in the majors, getting thrashed for a 6.08 ERA in 183 2/3 innings with the Marlins, Orioles and Pirates from 2007 to '12; since then, he's found greater success with two years apiece in Korea and Japan. In the tournament, he spun four shutout innings against Korea but then was pounded for five runs in three innings by Japan. Should the Netherlands advance, that would appear to leave Meulens with a choice of former major leaguer Jair Jurrjens and Dutch Major League veteran Diegomar Markwell to start the finals. The 31-year-old Jurrjens, who spent 2007–14 in the majors with four teams, yielded two runs in three innings versus Chinese Taipei and then threw six innings of one-run ball against Israel; he has a team-high nine strikeouts on a team that is otherwise whiffing just 5.0 per nine. The 36-year-old Markwell, who has participated in every WBC, has allowed one run in three appearances totaling 8 2/3 innings, including a six-inning, one-run turn against Cuba; he was the first man out of the bullpen in his other two outings.
The Dutch bullpen has been stellar thus far, allowing just five earned runs in 29 innings, and they're in for quite a boost, as Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen will join them for the semifinals; he caught for the team's 2009 squad but bypassed pitching for them in '13. Don't expect him to empty the tank as he did in the playoffs last October, but do expect him to get an adrenaline boost from pitching in a competitive game on his home turf—which is exactly why he's chosen to join up. Others likely to pitch include former major leaguer Shairon Martis, who has made four appearances totaling six innings and allowed just one run, and 7'1" giant Loek van Mil, who has 3 1/3 scoreless innings over three appearances.
As for the offense, it's booming, with a .321 bating average and a .531 slugging percentage. Rightfielder Wladimir Balentien (.591/.654/1.000 with three home runs and 10 RBIs) and centerfielder Jurickson Profar (.522/.577/.870 with a homer and four RBIs) have both been on fire, with the latter holding his own at a position he had never played before, at least professionally. Andrelton Simmons (.333/.357/.407) has hit well while handling shortstop, but neither second baseman Jonathan Schoop (.261/.320/.391) nor third baseman Xander Bogaerts (.211/.385/.316) have gotten it going to the same extent. Yurendell de Caster, another four-time WBC participant who got all of two plate appearances in the majors with the Pirates in 2006, has been productive sharing first base duties with Curt Smith, hitting .385/.429/.615 with a homer and eight RBIs; Smith is frigid 1-for-12. One notable loss for the Dutch is Didi Gregorius, who had been swinging a hot bat (.348/.385/.652 with a homer and eight RBIs) as the DH but has left the tournament due to a shoulder injury.
With the ouster of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, undefeated Puerto Rico is the last Latin American team standing. After scoring 29 runs in their three Pool D games in high-altitude Jalisco, Mexico, the "Bleach Boys" showed they could win lower-scoring affairs by beating the Dominicans, 3–1, and the U.S., 6–4, before trouncing Venezuela, 13–2. In all, the Edwin Rodriguez-managed squad has outscored opponents 51–15—a margin of six runs per game—despite a lack of name brand pitching; catcher Yadier Molina has done a great job of shepherding the staff.
Jorge Lopez, a 24-year-old righty who was crushed for a 5.78 ERA with the Brewers' Double and Triple A affiliates last year, will start against the Netherlands. The Mets' Seth Lugo, who's allowed three runs in 11 innings over two turns, would be on turn to pitch in the finals if Puerto Rico makes it, since he last worked on Friday, though veteran Orlando Roman could be an option as well. Lopez was solid in a 4 1/3-inning, one-run outing against Mexico, striking out five. He'll be backed by a pair of Twins, Hector Santiago (one earned run and five strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings, including 2 2/3 shutout innings against the D.R.) and Jose Berrios (three runs and six strikeouts in a five-inning start against Italy). Eight of Puerto Rico's 11 relievers used thus far have yet to allow a run, with Giovanni Soto (White Sox), Joseph Colon (Indians), Alex Claudio (Rangers) and Joe Jimenez (Tigers) each with multiple scoreless outings under their belts. The Mariners' Edwin Diaz, who gave up two ninth-inning runs to Team USA but converted the save, is the likely closer.
The star-studded Puerto Rico lineup is tied with the Netherlands with nine homers and has hit .330 and slugged .547 as a team. Francisco Lindor (.389/.455/.722), Carlos Correa (.375/.556/.813) and Molina (.353/.353/.706) have each homered twice, with Correa's seven RBIs leading the team. Carlos Beltran (.471/.550/.529) has a team-high eight hits, and Eddie Rosario (.462/.500/.769) has been sizzling as well, and as with last October, you simply can't take your eye off Javier Baez (.300/.333/.500), either at the plate or in the field. The only Puerto Rican regular not swinging the bat well is first baseman T.J. Rivera (.150/.182/.350); he could sit, as both Mets backup catcher Rene Rivera and Twins DH Kennys Vargas have started at the position as well.
Aside from an 8–0 win over Team Canada to cap Pool C play, all of Team USA's games have been decided by three runs or fewer; in the second round, the U.S. beat Venezuela, 4–2, lost to Puerto Rico, 6–5, and beat the Dominican Republic, 6–3. The Americans have outscored their opponents 31–20, and despite the absences of the Kershaws and Bumgarners, the starting pitching has been impressive, with just five runs allowed in 26 innings by Marcus Stroman, Danny Duffy, Chris Archer and Drew Smyly. Against Japan, however, manager Jim Leyland chose to bypass Archer this time around in favor of Tanner Roark, reportedly because the latter—despite being cuffed for three runs in 1 1/3 innings in his first-round relief appearance against the D.R.—stayed with the team while Archer returned to the Rays between turns. If true, that's not a great look, given the difficulty the tournament has had in wooing top U.S. stars. Stroman, who's allowed four runs in 9 1/3 innings, is lined up to start if Team USA advances to the finals for the first time.
The Americans' bullpen has been hit or miss, combining to allow 11 runs and 27 strikeouts in 27 innings; all five homers allowed by the team have come via Roark, Andrew Miller, David Robertson and Tyler Clippard. Sam Dyson, Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson have been scoreless in three outings apiece, with just three hits and one walk allowed between them, and Clippard (one run in 4 1/3 innings with six strikeouts) has been reliable where Miller and Robertson have looked shaky.
On the offensive side, Team USA has hit just .248 and slugged .422, with Jones (.222/.222/.519) and Buster Posey (.273/.333/.818) the only players with multiple homers. Leyland's lineups have been mysterious, to say the least. Eric Hosmer (.381/.435/.619 with a homer and a team-high five RBIs) has at least been more productive than Paul Goldschmidt (1-for-13) at first base, in one of the more curious choices, but Daniel Murphy is a rusty 0-for-6 as Ian Kinsler (.238/.333/.238) has scuffled in regular duty, and it still doesn't make sense why Stanton (.214/.353/.500) has batted eighth. Hosmer and Brandon Crawford (.444/.500/.722) are tied for the team high in hits with eight, and Christian Yelich (.350/.435/.500) has seven and also leads the team with five runs scored.
With Nori Aoki as the only major leaguer on this squad, Samurai Japan—the two-time tournament champions—is by far the least familiar to MLB fans, but like Puerto Rico, the team is 6–0 so far. Japan has outscored opponents 45–22 but didn’t dominate the second round; after outlasting the Netherlands, 8–6, in 11 innings, it rallied for three eighth-inning runs to beat Cuba, 8–5, and was scoreless through five against Israel before pulling away to an 8–3 win.
Getting the call against Team USA is 27-year-old righty Tomoyuki Sugano, the ace of the Yomiuri Giants and the purveyor of seven pitches. After holding Australia to one run in 4 1/3 innings in the first round—he struck out four, didn't walk a batter and yielded only a solo homer—he struggled with his command and was roughed up for four runs in four innings by the Cubans, though he did whiff six. Should Japan win, manager Hiroki Kokubo's choice for the finals would come down to Takahiro Norimoto, Kodai Senga and Ayumu Ishikawa. Senga, a 24-year-old righty, has been stellar thus far, throwing nine shutout innings in three appearances, including a five-inning, one-hit start against Israel; he's whiffed 11 and walked just one. He's been Japan's top reliever, however, so may be of more use out of the bullpen.
Japan's bullpen as a whole has allowed just eight runs in 30 innings, with righties Kazuhisa Makita, Ryo Akiyoshi and Yoshihisa Hirano each making five appearances. Dodgers Digest blogger Daniel Brim, who knows far more about Japanese baseball than I do, termed the team's bullpen depth "comical [with] a lot of different looks available: submarine, sidearm, over-the-top, fireballers, junkballers." Look for a lot of mixing and matching on Tuesday night.
On the offensive side, Japan has hit .319 and slugged .524 with a tournament-high 10 homers, including three apiece by leftfielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (.364/.462/.773) and first baseman Sho Nakata (.294/.429/.882); they're tied for the team lead with eight RBIs. DH and sometime-leadoff hitter Tetsuto Yamada (.320/.419/.640) had a pair of homers against Cuba. Three other regulars are hitting at least .400: shortstop Hayato Sakamoto (.450/.522/.600 with a team-high nine hits), catcher Seiji Kobayashi (.444/.450/.611) and third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda (.400/.381/.600). Aoki is hitting just .200/.360/.250, albeit with three doubles.