World Baseball Classic Round One: What (We Think) We Learned
The two heavy favorites (Japan and Korea) advanced, and split their two meetings. I was a little groggy watching games that had a 4:30 AM first pitch, and the fact the Korean roster has eleven players named either “Kim” or “Lee” had me confused more than once.
Despite no real surprises in the results, the time zone difference, and the naming similarities, there are a few items that stuck in the memory bank.
China is not ready for prime time. It was great to see them win a game, even if it was against Taiwan—who was their only win in the 2008 Olympic games. Major League Baseball would love their version of Yao Ming, who could spread baseball to 1.3 billion potential fans.
However, if the Chinese leagues play only a couple dozen games per season, they will not be able to even identify their best players, let alone develop them. When infielders are complaining about sore arms as a result of preparation for and participating in this event, it’s not a good sign.
Korea is for real. Everyone should already know this by now, but they are never mentioned at the top of anyone’s list. Winning the Gold in Beijing should have been enough. Their 6-1 (that included two wins against Japan, and one against the United States) record in the last WBC should be enough.
Maybe it will take another player or two with success at the Major League level to make us remember them, but this nation can produce baseball talent that can play with anyone.
Japan’s starters Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka are the best 1-2 combination in the tournament. The Cubans might disagree, but that is the only other nation that is in the conversation. These two anchor a staff that has only given up three runs in three games. Japan is the defending champion, so they are not going to sneak up on anyone. They don’t have to.
This is another pool where the two favorites advanced. Cuba was considered a contender for the title, and was the silver medalist in the last WBC.
They took gold at the 2004 Olympics, and won Silver in 2000 and 2008. Mexico was picked to advance because, well, the other two participants were Australia and South Africa.
We learned the following:
First and foremost, Mexico City is a terrible place to host baseball. Nothing against the city or the fans, but after playing in this altitude, playing in Colorado seems like the Polo Grounds. Curveballs don’t break, and some homers hit last Sunday by Team Cuba may or may not have landed yet.
In a park where anyone can hit, beware of an upset. After 34 hits between the two teams in eight innings, Australia defeated Mexico 17-7 in a “mercy-rule” shortened game. This is the Australia team that went 0-3 in 2006 and was outscored 4-18. Somehow, the same teams met 48 hours later with Mexico winning 16-1. Go figure.
Yet again, the favorites advanced. Venezuela and the Unites States split their games, and neither lost to another team. There was not a whole lot to observe here, but a couple of notes:
If the United States doesn’t advance to the finals, it will like be due to a very suspect bullpen.
Heath Bell, John Grabow, Joel Hanrahan, J.P. Howell, Matt Lidstrom, Matt Thorton, and Brad Ziegler aren’t exactly being discussed as fantasy baseball picks right now, and I don’t think any of their opponents are going to give up if they’re down two in the sixth.
Throw in the fact that pitch counts limit the starters ability to go deep, and the U.S. may have a problem against slugging teams. The pitchers that have come in off the bench have allowed 10 runs in 17-1/3 innings of work, for a less than stellar 5.19 ERA.
Venezuela, discussed as a dark-horse pick, needs to find some pitching depth as well. There are some solid starters in Carlos Silva and Victor Hernandez, and Francisco Rodriguez as a closer can match or better anyone in the tournament. They will have to get some innings from a few others to bridge the started to Hernandez.
The injury to Chipper Jones will keep MLB players afraid of participation in the WBC. It’s not any more likely that Jones would have been hurt here, rather than in Braves’ camp, but fear trumps logic in situations like these.
At long last, an upset. No one had the Netherlands advancing in their office pools. I can almost say this as fact, as I may be in the only office that had a pool on the WBC. None of the nine of us had the Netherlands advancing to Miami.
We probably learned more from this pool than any other including:
Baseball is played in Holland. Ok, some of us knew that, but not everyone. When Andrew Jones was supposed to be the star of the 2006 team, many assumed that most of the Dutch team was from Curacao, or other ABC islands of the Netherlands Antilles.
As it turns out, the Netherlands is Europe’s most successful baseball power, having finished first or second in 27 of 30 European championships. A week ago, that meant nothing, but having beat the mighty Dominican Republic twice, it suddenly got some people to notice.
A-Rod just might be a distraction anywhere he goes for the rest of his life.
This indeed was the most difficult bracket. The Dominican Republic was among the tournament favorites, and Puerto Rico was mentioned as a dark-horse. Panama featured a team with a few household names, and wouldn’t have surprised people had they stolen a spot from either Puerto Rico or the Dominican. Fortunately, the Netherlands was placed in this pool to keep it from being too loaded.
We’ve learned that this event has not quite arrived, but it’s drawing some attention. ESPN could do more with it if it didn’t have to conflict with its best week of NCAA basketball ratings-wise.
It’s also missing the star power that could really get it going domestically. However, it is clear from watching these games that it does mean something to the participants, and hopefully that will be a springboard to more high profile international baseball in the future.
See you in Round II …
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