Qualifying for the third World Baseball Classic, which will take place in March, continues on Thursday as the final two groups begin play. Spain and Canada have already secured their spots through group play in September.
Countries that advance to the tournament will join the likes of the United States, Dominican Republic and two-time defending champion Japan in pursuit of international baseball's top prize. The final will take place in San Francisco, home of the World Series-champion Giants.
Here's a look at botch of the two qualifying groups that begin play this week, including a schedule and prediction for each as eight teams vie for a spot in the marquee event.
Rod Carew National Stadium in Panama City, Panama
|Game 1||Nov. 15||8 p.m. ET||Brazil vs. Panama|
|Game 2||Nov. 16||8 p.m. ET||Nicaragua vs. Colombia|
|Game 3||Nov. 17||2 p.m. ET||TBD vs. Brazil|
|Game 4||Nov. 17||8 p.m. ET||TBD vs. Panama|
|Game 5||Nov. 18||7 p.m. ET||Loser Bracket Final|
|Game 6||Nov. 19||8 p.m. ET||Qualifier|
Panama has two major advantages heading into play. The first is home-field advantage in front of what's sure to be a raucous crowd in Panama City, especially if they reach the final. The other one is having catcher Carlos Ruiz.
The Philadelphia Phillies backstop is coming off a terrific season in which he hit .325 with 16 home runs and 68 runs batted in, a rare bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season for the Phillies. He will provide the pop Panama needs.
Panama's main competition will likely come from Colombia, which will feature veteran shortstop Edgar Renteria. He should lead a pretty solid lineup for the South American contender, but they will need to get hot to knock off Panama.
It would be a surprise if Nicaragua or Brazil advanced, even though Brazil is a growing baseball nation. Neither of those teams has what it takes to knock off Panama, which has the group's deepest talent pool without a doubt.
Xinzhuang Stadium in New Taipei City, Taiwan
|Game 1||Nov. 15||10:30 p.m. ET||Thailand vs. Philippines|
|Game 2||Nov. 15||5:30 a.m. ET||New Zealand vs. Chinese Taipei|
|Game 3||Nov. 16||10:30 p.m. ET||TBD vs. New Zealand|
|Game 4||Nov. 16||5:30 a.m. ET||TBD vs. Chinese Taipei|
|Game 5||Nov. 17||1 a.m. ET||Loser Bracket Final|
|Game 6||Nov. 18||1 a.m. ET||Qualifier|
Chinese Taipei is the favorite in the final qualifier thanks to a strong starting rotation. None of the team's pitchers were more impressive this season than Wei-Yin Chen, who was one of the main reasons the Baltimore Orioles were able to earn a playoff spot.
The rookie, at least by MLB standards, posted a 4.02 ERA during the regular season and shut down the New York Yankees in his only postseason start, giving up just one run in 6.1 innings. Chinese Taipei, also known as Taiwan, will need that type of showing from him.
Among the other three teams in the group, fans of American baseball would find it difficult to identify players they know. None of them feature a heavy MLB, or even minor league presence, which adds to the intrigue of this event but doesn't help their chances.
As long as Chinese Taipei's lineup is able to manufacture runs to support its pitching staff, the team should cruise through the group stage. The double-elimination format also helps, because it will prevent a single fluke loss from knocking them out.
Prediction: Chinese Taipei