World Baseball Classic: Semifinal Preview

Dan WadeSenior Analyst IMarch 20, 2009

MIAMI - MARCH 16:  Closer Francisco Rodriguez #75 of Venezuela pitches against Puerto Rico during day 3 of round 2 of the World Baseball Classic at Dolphin Stadium on March 16, 2009 in Miami, Florida. Venezuela defeated Puerto Rico 2-0.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

One of the great things about March Madness is the way the tournament changes as it goes on. The first four days of games are all about the upsets: Which 12 seed is going to knock off a five seed? Could a team seeded 15th actually upset a team like Memphis?

Once Cinderella has gone home, the second phase takes over and the middle rounds are dominated by questions of matchups and momentum.

Finally, fans spend the last few days watching the very best college basketball has to offer showcase top-tier talent in a spectacle unlike almost anything else.

That is where the World Baseball Classic sits at this moment.

Cinderella (the Netherlands) has gone home and the matchup games are done (Cuba couldn't handle Japan's relentless attack). Now we, the fans, are left with some of the very best talent competing in games that seem to get better by the day.

The United States' opening game with Canada was a fantastic game, but even that couldn't hold a candle to the drama of Tuesday's bottom of the ninth comeback that pushed Team USA into the semifinal round.

Even the most ardent opponents of the tournament have to admit: that was one fantastic game.

The four teams that remain all deserve to be here, and both games will be tough contests.


Korea v. Venezuela (Pool One runner-up v. Pool Two winner)

Korea has gotten very good pitching thus far in the tournament from Jung Keun Bong, who should get the ball again against Venezuela.

Bong has limited the number of runners on base, which has kept him form giving up the big inning that has killed a lot of pitchers. He's given up just one run in his 13.2 innings and is sporting a WHIP of just 0.80.

If the Venezuelans remain true to their early tournament form, Carlos Silva will be his mound opponent. While Silva hasn't been bad by any means, Felix Hernandez should be getting the ball in this key game. Hernandez has yet to give up a run and has 11 strike outs in fewer than nine innings of work.

Offensively, Team Venezuela has presented a balanced attack; six of their players have an OPS over 1.000. They have home run power to punish any mistake, but have also shown an uncanny ability to get runners moving and manufacture runs without a long bomb.

Korea has had a few major outbursts of runs and a few games where they seemed unable to push even one run across. If Bum Ho Lee and a few of the other power hitters are on their game, Korea could win this one walking away.

However, if they don't have that spark, they could be in for a real fight.

Winner: Venezuela

Probably the most impressive team from the last pool. They won games by outlasting opponents on the back of great pitching (2-0 victory over Puerto Rico) or by simply out gunning a high scoring foe (10-6 win over the United States).

Venezuela also boasts the better bullpen of the two teams and that has proved to be a key advantage thus far in the Classic.


United States v. Japan (Pool Two Runner-Up v. Pool One Winner)

Japan has been one of the most consistent teams in the tournament, losing only to Korea once in both rounds. Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka have both been excellent starting off games and the bullpen has protected the leads they have been given.

Offensively, Japan has relied heavily on manufactured runs and taking advantage of opponents' miscues. They have just four team home runs, the fewest of any semifinal team as well as the lowest OPS.

Still, they have scored runs when they have needed them, and there's no reason to think they'll stop now. The Japanese play a very consistent game, which makes them the perfect opponent for Team USA.

It is very difficult to guess what team will take the field for the United States on Sunday, and as such, difficult to guess how they'll fare. The loss of Kevin Youkilis is a huge blow, but adding in Evan Longoria for the hobbled Chipper Jones is quite the boon.

If Adam Dunn has to play first base again on Sunday, Japan will almost certainly have the errors they love to take advantage of. (Nothing against Dunn, who simply is NOT a first baseman by trade.)

However, the only other option on the US' provisional roster was Derrek Lee, who has been laid up with injuries himself back at the Cubs' camp in Arizona.

Irrespective, Team USA will score its runs, putting the burden squarely on Jake Peavy's shoulders to keep the US within striking distance. If Peavy can locate his breaking ball against the Japanese, the US will almost certainly win the game.

If, however, he can't pitch low in the strike zone, long innings are almost a given.

The bullpen, too, has been a rocky road for the US. JP Howell is the only pitcher not to have given up a run yet, and he's pitched just two innings. However, the injured Matt Lindstrom could be replaced by Joe Nathan, BJ Ryan or Brian Fuentes and the US would once again have a solid stopper in the 'pen.

Winner: Japan

Regardless of who gets the ball for Japan, the US will have a tough time scoring, even if they magically got Albert Pujols to play first base. This will put pressure on the US' pitching staff, and the lack of practice will come back to haunt them.

If this were midseason and Jake Peavy was making hitters look foolish like he has been known to do, The US probably wins a fantastic pitchers duel. Given his struggles so far, Peavy likely won't be able to match Darvish or Matsuzaka, and the bullpen can't be trusted to keep the game close if Peavy can't pass them a lead.

The loss of Youkilis without a solid replacement hurts the US a lot, and as a result, they head back to their respective camps with the knowledge that they did better than the 2006 lot did, but probably with a chip on thier shoulder and a bitter taste in their mouth.