Saturday, March 21, 2009
While many sports fans are preoccupied this weekend with the opening rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournament and their own bracket pools, another big tournament is coming to a conclusion. The 2nd-ever World Baseball Classic has been taking place over the past two weeks, and the original 16 competing nations have been whittled down to a Final Four through two rounds of play. Opening round drama was provided by a tremendous pair of upset victories by the Netherlands in eliminating the powerful team from the Dominican Republic. In this past week's 2nd round, it was a dramatic 3-run rally in the bottom of the 9th inning by the U.S. against Puerto Rico that enabled the Americans to advance into the semi-finals. Meanwhile the Cuban team was eliminated, meaning that for the first time in almost five decades they will not reach the finals of a major international tournament. Advancing into those semis which will take place tonight and tomorrow night are the United States, Venezuela, Korea, and the defending WBC champions from Japan. While the game of baseball was invented in the United States and became our 'National Pasttime', and while the depth of talent in America remains far above that in other nations, the fact is that the rest of the world has caught up at the top levels of competition. The team rosters in Major League Baseball are now made up of 40% players from nations outside the United States. Teams from the South American nations such as Venezuela and Mexico, from the Caribbean such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominicans, and from Asia in Japan and Korea, as well as the team from Canada are all highly competitive and most are now capable of winning any international competition, even one involving professional players. In today's first semi-final, Korea will battle the Venezuelans. The Koreans advanced to the semis back in the first WBC in 2006, and used that success as a springboard to winning the gold medal at last year's summer Olympics in China. They have just one Major League player in young Cleveland Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, and have perhaps the youngest team in the semis. They also have the best defense in the tournament and a pitching staff that is sporting a 3.05 ERA. Their offense is led by third baseman Bum Ho Lee, who is hitting .375 with 3 homers and 6 rbi and first baseman Tae Kyun Kim, who is hitting .364 with 2 homers and 9 rbi during the tourney. Venezuela is loaded with 21 players from MLB, including stars such as Bobby Abreu, Miguel Cabrera, and Melvin Mora. They have the best offense in the tournament, hitting .309 as a team with almost half of their hits going for extra bases. It is a classic matchup of great pitching and defense against big bats. The pitching matchup will feature Carlos Silva for Venezuela against Suk-Min Yoon for Korea. Yoon has not yet allowed a run in the tournament. The other semi-final will take place on Sunday night pitting the United States against defending champion Japan. The Japanese are fully capable of winning again with a veteran cast of formidable players led by living legend outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and two of the best pitchers in the world in Daisuke 'Dice K' Matsuzaka and young phenom Yu Darvish. The Japanese team suffered a serious blow in their last game when slugging first baseman Suichi Murata, who was hitting .320 with 2 homers and 7 rbi, suffered a torn right hamstring and will miss the rest of the tournament. His loss takes most of the power from Japan's lineup, but they still have the pitching, speed, and experience to win it all. The Americans' 9th inning rally against Puerto Rico advanced them to the semis after missing them in 2006. This year's squad is led by third baseman David Wright, shortstop Derek Jeter, and a pair of Phillies in Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, along with a number of other familiar big leaguers including Ryan Braun, Brian Roberts, Brian McCann, and Evan Longoria. The depth of American talent has allowed them to overcome injuries to Chipper Jones, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. The semi-final pitching matchup will be one of talented veterans, with the Red Sox ace 'Dice K' going for Japan against Houston Astros ace Roy Oswalt for Team USA. The weekend's semi-final winners will advance to the championship game of the WBC on Monday night. Whichever teams are involved, it will surely be a baseball classic worthy of your attention. In the 2006 WBC, the Japanese offense opened up on Cuba for a 10-6 win that ended a classic three-week period of play, and this year has been no less exciting. So while you follow the NCAA basketball tourney this weekend, remember too that on the next three nights you can also follow the best that international baseball has to offer with the conclusion of the 2nd-ever World Baseball Classic. NOTE: The games of the WBC can be followed on ESPN and ESPN2, and the title of this story is a link to further information on the topic, in this case to the official WBC website complete with video, stats, and feature columns.