World Baseball Classic: Round Two Preview
Round one of the World Baseball Classic went pretty close to my predicted form...except for one of the biggest upsets of baseball history.
Anyone who told you they called the Netherlands' two-game sweep of the Dominican powerhouse has been around the Amsterdam hash bars for too long. It really is hard to find a good parallel for an upset of this type.
It doesn't have the political ramifications of the Miracle on Ice, but comparing it to the upsets typical of round one of the NCAA men's basketball tournament really diminishes how out of the ordinary this was.
Not only did the Dutch beat the Dominicans, they did it twice. They protected a lead the first time and came from behind the second time. This was not a fluke, but rather a perfect example of a team with the right pieces in the right places beating a great team with players out of position.
Still, I don't see the Netherlands as the George Mason of this tournament. In a pool with Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the United States, it will take everything the Dutch have and more to keep the clock from striking midnight.
Pool one features the four teams most people thought would be here: Japan, Korea, Cuba, and Mexico. Each team won a game by at least seven runs, and all but Cuba won a game by a double-digit margin.
Now that the South Africas and Chinas of the tournament have been sent packing, I highly doubt we'll see those margins again. It bears saying, I put no weight in who won their pool and who was runner up. Every team was resting key players; these were the least relevant games played so far.
Korea and Japan split their two games, though Japan outscored Korea 14-3. Yu Darvish is every bit as good as he's cracked up to be, and now that the pitch limits have been raised, he'll get a chance to show it. I see Japan's superior rotation being the difference between these two.
Cuba and Mexico have been polar opposites so far in the classic. Cuba has been very solid, but perhaps a bit underwhelming as they progressed through the tournament. They've yet to lose, though they've yet to play Mexico, and Australia certainly gave them a scare.
Mexico, on the other hand, has been Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. They lost by 10 runs to the Aussies, then came back and beat them by 15 with an 11-run drubbing of the South Africans thrown in for good measure.
Once again, I see this paring coming down to pitching and I've been more impressed with the Cubans than the Mexicans.
Japan and Cuba are my picks to emerge from this pool, but it doesn't take too much imagination to see the Koreans making things very difficult for one of these teams. Team Mexico may make a few hearts flutter, but at the end of the day, they are fourth best.
With the Dominicans out, there is no excuse for the United States to falter in this round the way they did in 2006.
Team USA's biggest weakness, their bullpen, is about to get a shot in the arm when Brian Fuentes joins the team.
Their offense has been quite good, if a little too reliant on the long ball. No one looked at this side and thought "You know, they'll be really good at small ball and manufacturing runs," so it should come as no surprise that they've been home-run happy.
Just remember, if the US faces Darvish or Jung Keun Bong in the finals, they'll need to find a way to push runs across that doesn't involve Adam Dunn leaving a permanent dent on a belt-high fastball.
Joining the US ought to be Venezuela, at least on paper, but their bullpen issues are going to play a roll. They will be helped by the rising pitch count, but they still won't be able to get eight innings out of Felix Hernandez, and Carlos Silva is perpetually one game in which his sinker doesn't sink from being more a liability than an asset.
The Netherlands just doesn't have it. I want so badly to say they do, but I just don't see it. Puerto Rico got them twice already and the Venezuelans have been putting up runs at a prodigious clip, scoring five on their worst night.
The Dutch can pitch and play defense, but they have not been good at pushing runners across themselves, which won't work against the three high octane offenses left in the pool.
If the Venezuelans can find a way to keep their bullpen from giving away leads, they'll join the other three in the semi-finals. However, if Victor Zambrano is really their best option, Puerto Rico has been playing quite well so far and could easily sneak past them.
My guess, Zambrano gets the ball once too often and the teams advancing from Pool Two are Team USA and Team Puerto Rico.
The second round of pool play begins on Saturday in Miami with the second set of game in San Diego on Sunday.
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