The World Baseball Classic is a terrific alternative to the monotonous grind of spring training games. The tournament atmosphere and national pride make the games mean something, rather than seeing players simply going through the motions.
Japan enters as the two-time defending champion of the event. There are a handful of other contenders hoping to make sure it doesn't go three-for-three. A lot will depend on which nations are best able to handle the hand they're dealt in terms of the schedule.
Let's examine three of the teams capable of winning the third World Baseball Classic that will need to survive a tough journey to claim the trophy. For a complete look at the event, including bracket information, visit the WBC's official site. A complete schedule is also below.
It's easy to see why the Dominican Republic is a popular pick to take home the title. Robinson Cano, Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez highlight a dynamic lineup that's paired with a shutdown bullpen, which is led by Tampa Bay Rays closer Fernando Rodney.
The only concern is the starting rotation, but it could turn out to be a major issue in Pool C. Venezuela and Puerto Rico are both dangerous teams capable of exploiting that weakness, and keeping pace with the Dominican Republic's high-powered offense.
It's crucial to take the top spot in the group, otherwise a second-place finish would likely set up a titanic battle with the United States to start the next round. It wants to avoid that matchup for as long as possible to increase the chances of a semifinal berth.
Between the fact that advancing from the group isn't even a guarantee and with the United States hovering for Round 2, the Dominican Republic certainly faces some tough challenges.
Which of these countries will make the deepest run?
The only champion in the tournament's history, Japan should be in the mix once again. Masahiro Tanaka is capable of taking over the ace role from Daisuke Matsuzaka, who carried the staff to both titles, and Shinnosuke Abe provides the pop in the lineup.
The country's most dangerous foe in the opening round will be Cuba, which dropped the championship game to Japan in 2006. The baseball-crazy nation is capable of making another deep run if its young players rise to the occasion.
Japan's biggest obstacle could end up being China, though. The country has become a lot more competitive in baseball in recent years and shouldn't be completely counted out. It makes the path out of Pool A a little more tricky for Japan.
Assuming it does advance, a deep Pool B will make the second round no walk in the park, either. If Japan wins another title, it will have earned it.
Speaking of Pool B, the most popular choice from the group is South Korea, the runner-up in 2009. Although the roster doesn't feature many, if any, names that American fans will recognize, it's a deep group with a lot of veterans to lead the way.
Joining Korea in Pool B are Australia, Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands. It's the only group in the first round that doesn't feature at least one obvious weak point. All four countries have a realistic shot at advancing to the next stage.
That clearly makes Korea's job of surviving Pool play more difficult than the other favorites. And then their second round opponents will include likely include Japan, which would eliminate one potential spot in the semifinals, if Japan matches the hype again.
While having so much experience should help Korea overcome a couple of the speed bumps, it certainly has a lot of work ahead if it wants to earn a trip to San Francisco for the final four.
|1||A||Saturday, March 2||5 a.m.||Japan vs. Brazil|
|1||A||Saturday, March 2||10 p.m.||Cuba vs. Brazil|
|1||A||Sunday, March 3||5 a.m.||China vs. Japan|
|1||A||Monday, March 4||3:30 a.m.||China vs. Cuba|
|1||A||Tuesday, March 5||3:30 a.m.||Brazil vs. China|
|1||A||Wednesday, March 6||5 a.m.||Japan vs. Cuba|
|1 ||B||Friday, March 1||11:30 p.m.||Australia vs. Taiwan|
|1||B||Saturday, March 2||6:30 a.m.||South Korea vs. Netherlands|
|1||B||Sunday, March 3||1:30 a.m.||Netherlands vs. Taiwan|
|1||B||Monday, March 4||5:30 a.m.||South Korea vs. Australia|
|1||B||Monday, March 4||11:30 p.m.||Australia vs. Netherlands|
|1||B||Tuesday, March 5||6:30 a.m.||Taiwan vs. South Korea|
|1||C||Thursday, March 7||6:30 p.m.||Venezuela vs. Dominican Republic|
|1||C||Friday, March 8||5:30 p.m.||Spain vs. Puerto Rico|
|1||C||Saturday, March 9||11 a.m.||Dominican Republic vs. Spain|
|1||C||Saturday, March 9||5:30 p.m.||Puerto Rico vs. Venezuela|
|1 ||C||Sunday, March 10||12:30 p.m.||Spain vs. Venezuela|
|1||C||Sunday, March 10||7:30 p.m.||Dominican Republic vs. Puerto Rico|
|1||D||Thursday, March 7||3 p.m.||Italy vs. Mexico|
|1||D||Friday, March 8||2:30 p.m.||Canada vs. Italy|
|1||D||Friday, March 8||9 p.m.||Mexico vs. United States|
|1||D||Saturday, March 9||2:30 p.m.||Canada vs. Mexico|
|1||D||Saturday, March 9||9 p.m.||United States vs. Italy|
|1||D||Sunday, March 10||4 p.m.||United States vs. Canada|
|2||n/a||Thursday, March 8||10 p.m.||Game 1: Pool A Runner-up vs. Pool B Winner|
|2||n/a||Friday, March 8||5 a.m.||Game 2: Pool B Runner-up vs. Pool A Winner|
|2||n/a||Saturday, March 9||5 a.m.||Game 1 Loser vs. Game 2 Loser|
|2||n/a||Sunday, March 10||6 a.m.||Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner|
|2||n/a||Monday, March 11||6 a.m.||Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Loser|
|2||n/a||Tuesday, March 12||6 a.m.||Game 5 Winner vs. Game 4 Winner|
|2||n/a||Tuesday, March 12||1 p.m.||Game 1: Pool D Runner-up vs. Pool C Winner|
|2||n/a||Tuesday, March 12||8 p.m.||Game 2: Pool C Runner-up vs. Pool D Winner|
|2||n/a||Wednesday, March 13||7 p.m.||Game 1 Loser vs. Game 2 Loser|
|2||n/a||Thursday, March 14||7 p.m.||Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner|
|2||n/a||Friday, March 15||7 p.m.||Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Loser|
|2||n/a||Saturday, March 16||1 p.m.||Game 5 Winner vs. Game 4 Winner|
|Semifinals||n/a||Sunday, March 17||9 p.m.||Pool 2 Runner-up vs. Pool 1 Winner|
|Semifinals||n/a||Monday, March 18||9 p.m.||Pool 1 Runner-up vs. Pool 2 Winner|
|Finals||n/a||Tuesday, March 19||9 p.m.||Semifinal Winners|