The World Baseball Classic opening round robin play for Pool C and Pool D will begin on Thursday evening and wrap up when the weekend concludes.
To kick things off, a high-profile matchup between the Dominican Republic and Venezuela will take place at 6:30 p.m. ET in San Juan, Puerto Rico's Hiram Bithorn Stadium. That will set the stage for what is sure to be a thrilling showcase on the diamond, bursting with national pride.
Here is a breakdown of the squads that will survive the next several days to make it to Miami for Round 2.
There is simply too much Major League Baseball talent in this lineup not to advance. Between Robinson Cano, Hanley Ramirez, Nelson Cruz and Jose Reyes, among others, the Dominican Republic is an explosive bunch.
Some teams will inevitably lose the first game between this super squad and Venezuela, but the Dominicans should be perfectly fine even if they come out on the wrong end of that outcome.
Although it is a double-elimination format and neither team will be able to afford another slip-up, it seems that the Dominican Republic will be able to muster plenty of firepower to get past Puerto Rico and Spain.
Fernando Rodney is an absolutely lethal closer in the bullpen, as he posted a 0.60 ERA for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012 and converted 48 of 50 save opportunities. As long as his teammates spot him a run entering the final frame, it's likely that Rodney will get the job done no matter who he's facing.
Momentum is such a big part of baseball, and Venezuela is in danger from the jump of being in the hole 0-1 early. However, like the Dominican Republic, this is an absolutely stacked roster.
A big x-factor in this one will be how the team responds to the death of president Hugo Chavez. Manager Luis Sojo had this to say about Chavez to Ken Belson of The New York Times:
[Chavez] loved baseball, and he knows everybody on the team...The country is very sad now, so we said, "Let’s win it for him."
Star outfielder Carlos Gonzalez certainly understands the stakes, and chose to not focus on some of Chavez's controversial political policies:
Everybody knows that there are two sides, but at the same time, we all feel bad about it because he is a human being...We are dedicating our game to the whole country. I think a lot of people just breathe baseball in our country and expect great things from this team. That’s why we have a lot of responsibility.
The reason that Venezuela is listed second is because the club has to be considered the underdog in the opening round robin showdown. Pitching is not a strength of this team, led by the likes of Anibal Sanchez and Jhoulys Chacin.
Bats are in ample supply, though, with Miguel Cabrera, Gonzalez and World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval. That power should be enough to push past the opposition Sojo's squad encounters after the Dominican Republic.
One of the championship contenders to begin with, Team USA doesn't have a lot of resistance in the pool to advance to the second round.
Italy and Mexico shouldn't be too big of threats due to a lack of MLB pros present, and Canada is not as deep in terms of hitting or pitching. Plus, the savvy experience of Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre gives the U.S. a big strategic advantage.
A lot of big names in the MLB have skipped out on this event, and the fact that the Americans have assembled a solid crop of pros is impressive to begin with.
CBS Sports' Danny Knobler reported bad news that New York Yankees slugger Mark Teixeira injured himself in batting practice for Team USA and was forced to withdraw from the WBC. Originally thought to be a forearm strain, it turns out that Teixeira has a strained wrist, which will keep him out for eight to 10 weeks, according to Knobler's colleague Matt Snyder.
This team has plenty of other bats, though—most notably Milwaukee Brewers stud Ryan Braun and the extremely consistent Brandon Phillips of the Cincinnati Reds, among others.
It's all a matter of how badly this bunch wants to win the tournament. With Japan winning the previous two times, there is bound to be a new champion this year. With a pitching staff featuring R.A. Dickey and Gio Gonzalez, it will be tough for any team to get a hit at this juncture in the bracket.
Dickey has been named the starter for the opener against on Friday against Mexico in Phoenix's Chase Field.
The team won the pool to begin with, but is reeling a bit after losing a warmup game 12-2 to the Cincinnati Reds.
However, as documented by The Globe and Mail's Tyler Harper, Canadian standout Adam Loewen doesn't sound too worried about the poor showing during Thursday's exhibition:
I think everybody understands that while we take these games very seriously it is an exhibition game, and this is the time to get games like this out of our system.
Minnesota Twins All-Star Justin Morneau indicated to Tyler Killian of AZCentral.com that this is a tightly-knit bunch despite the multiple high-profile egos to juggle:
When you’re close and you have those relationships, you can kind of pick each other up...
Mistakes happen during the course of a game, but if you know everybody’s there together and people aren’t pointing fingers and blaming each other, then you can overcome those kinds of things.
Perhaps there is cause for concern, though, as Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie went down in the game with a rib injury, as reported by MLB.com's Gregor Chisholm.
#BlueJays PR is now saying it's a rib injury for Lawrie -- not an oblique injury as previously announced by the club.— Gregor Chisholm (@gregorMLB) March 7, 2013
Sounds like a doom-and-gloom scenario for the Canadians—but Reds superstar Joey Votto just recently decided to represent his country in the WBC. That provides a huge boost to the lineup, as Votto can change the game as quickly as anyone with one swing of the bat.
That is more than any team in Pool D other than the U.S. can boast, and it should be enough for Canada to make it to the next stage.