Breaking down this weekend's World Baseball Classic semifinals
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
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
Hernandez would be on regular rest for Saturday night's semi (9:00 ET, ESPN), but manager
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
Korea's offense profiles similarly to Venezuela's. The heart of Korea's batting order is populated by monstrous mashers such as first-baseman
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
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
In part because of Lee's unavailability, the Youkilis injury hurts the most. Absent a more experienced first-baseman,
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
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
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
Johnson announced that