Ahh, the tradition, the pageantry, the spectacle that is the Final Four. 16 nations fighting for the right to go play in a stadium with funky outfield walls that's named for a pet supply store chain to determine who is the best baseball playing nation in the world.
Well, no one says that the World Baseball Classic is the truest test of who is the best baseball playing nation in the world. But, at least for me, it's been fun to watch. It's had its ups (watching Korea play for one) and its downs (cough, BobDavidson, cough). But now it's down to four teams. It's single elimination. No mercy rules. No ties. OK, there's still a pitch limit, but it's up to 95 pitches now.
The noon PT game is one of the few international sporting events where the participants from the Dominican Republic would ever be considered to be a big favorite. And their opponents would envy growing up in some of the places where the Dominican players grew up. It's all in the perspective.
The Dominican Republic comes into the game winning five of its six games in the WBC, losing only to Puerto Rico. Cuba has won four of six, losing badly to Puerto Rico (12-2 in a mercy rule shortened game) and not as badly to the D.R. (7-3). The D.R. squad advanced when its pitchers combined on a one-hitter to get past Venezuela 2-1 in the final game of the second round. Cuba survived a near meltdown in the seventh when its manager, Higinio Velez was ejected, to beat Puerto Rico, 4-3 in its final game of the second round.
It's not hard to figure what the D.R. team wants to do. Manager Manny Acta knows his team has a lot of offensive weapons. He has Miguel Tejada, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, and Adrian Beltre batting 2-5. Beltre has hit four home runs and Ortiz has hit three. Pujols has hit one home run, but Tejada has none.
But the expected big inning offense from the D.R. squad hasn't quite materialized. Ortiz does have three home runs, but those are his only three hits of the WBC, although he has walked eight times. Pujols's home run is his only extra base hit.
The expected weak spot in the D.R. team, catcher, has actually hit pretty well. Alberto Castillo, Ronny Paulino and Juan Brito have combined to hit 6 for 20. Castillo scored the winning run against Venezuela on a passed ball and he had earlier put himself in position to score with a stolen base. In parts of 11 major leagues seasons, Castillo has three stolen bases. Alfonso Soriano started the WBC 0 for 11 and Acta opted to go with Placido Polanco at second base in the last two games.
The D.R. pitchers, without Pedro Martinez, were supposed to be good, but not great. But they've settled for just being very, very good. Daniel Cabrera struck out seven in four innings and gave up no hits to Venezuela in the D.R.'s last game. The only pitchers who have struggled are Miguel Batista and Damaso Marte. Marte has left the team with a bad shoulder and Francisco Cordero will replace him. Bartolo Colon will start the semifinal and he's given up just one runs and seven hits in eight innings of work against Venezuela and Puerto Rico. Odalis Perez has won two games and he might not even pitch again.
As for Cuba, not much was known about the team before it got to San Juan. And after six games, the Cuban team is still baffling. The team has looked great at times and awful at times. Sometimes the Cuban hitters look completely outclassed. Sometimes the pitchers look to be nervous and lacking command. But in Cuba's three most important games (against Panama, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico), the team has responded with some excellent play.
Rotund DH Yoandy Garlobo has led Cuba's hitters with 8 hits in 17 at bats. He has one home run and drove in the winning runs in Cuba's first win, an 8-6 11-inning game over Panama (the only extra-inning game of the WBC so far.) Second baseman Yulieski Gourriel is just 6 for 24, but he has two home runs and has looked sensational in the field and saved Cuba against Puerto Rico with a great relay throw to nail Ivan Rodriguez at the plate as the potential tying run.
Yadel Marti, who has a win and two saves, will be the likely starting pitcher for Cuba Saturday afternoon, but don't be surprised to see manager Velez turn to Pedro Luis Lazo for relief at any time he feels the game is in danger. Lazo, helped no doubt by Cuba being in the middle of its own season, throws very hard and supposedly hit 100 mph on the radar gun at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.
In Cuba's win over Venezuela, Cuba led 1-0 in the fifth when Marti gave up singles to Magglio Ordoñez and Ramon Hernandez to start the inning. Velez brought in Lazo who loaded the bases when he couldn't make a play on a bunt by Edgardo Alfonzo. But Lazo wasn't fazed. He got Endy Chavez to fly out to shallow left. Omar Vizquel did the same. Carlos Guillen followed and Lazo struck him out and Venezuela was not heard from again in the game. Velez since he is not answerable to skittish MLB managers and GMs, manages each game in order to maximize each situation. If the biggest inning to get out of is the fifth, then his best pitcher available comes in to relieve. Velez won't watch the D.R. team pile up a big lead because "it's not time" to use his best pitcher.
The night game will be the third matchup of the WBC between Asian rivals Korea and Japan. Korea has been the surprise team of the tournament, going 6-0, with two dramatic late-inning wins over Japan, a shockingly easy 7-3 win over the USA, narrow wins over Taiwan and Mexico and a rout of the overmatched Chinese team.
Japan has gone 3-3, but each loss was a heartbreaker. In addition to the two losses to Korea, Japan also dropped a 4-3 game to the USA when its potential go-ahead run in the 8th inning was negated on an appeal of an appeal play. Japanese manager Sadaharu Oh is working with his translator to see what the Japanese equivalent of a writ of certiorari is. If Bob Davidson tries to take a vacation to Japan, he can count on a long wait going through customs at Narita International Airport. The Japanese still managed to advance to the semis after the USA lost to Mexico 2-1 as Japan had given up fewer runs than the USA or Mexico in the second round.
Korea's manager In-Sik Kim, who is either a magician with his ability to maneuver his personnel or just incredibly lucky, will start Jae Seo in the semifinals. Seo has given up just one run in nine innings of work against Taiwan and Mexico on a home run by Luis A. Garcia. He has struck out seven and walked just two while giving up four hits. The Korean pitching staff has an ERA of 1.33 and the defense has made no errors. After I first posted this, I noticed the news that Korean pitcher Myung Hwan Park has been suspended for testing positive for a banned substance.
The Korean offense has been pretty much a one-man gang. Seung-Yeop Lee leads the WBC in home runs with five. Hee-Seop Choi has the other home run for Korea. Center fielder Jong Beom Lee, who doubled home both of Korea's runs in its win over Japan Wednesday, is 9 for 21 in the WBC. Whether or not Seung-Yeop Lee will be able to find the seats again in spacious PETCO Park is a problem.
Japan's offense has not been its most consistent feature either. Japan has outhomered Korea 8-6, but the Japanese seem to be missing the one big hit that will get its offense started. Ichiro has gone 7 for 24 with a home run, yet still seems strangely absent from the tournament. Second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the man who may or may not have left third base too early in the game against the USA, has been Japan's most consistent hitter at 8 for 22 with 2 home runs and 8 RBI. But Nishioka has made three errors in the field.
The starting pitching for Japan has been good. Koji Uehara gets the call for Japan Saturday and he's given up three runs in ten innings including two homers. Daisuke Matsuzaka would be waiting to start the final if Japan gets there. (Did you know Jake Peavy was scheduled to start this game for the USA before the tournament started? I hope someone told him that he's not pitching.) The Japanese relievers haven't been reliable as all three of the team's losses have come from the pen.
Korea was able to get all of its healthy MLB players to suit up for the WBC and they have all had key contributions at some point in the WBC. The only Japanese MLB players who have played in the WBC are Ichiro and reliever Akinori Otsuka. Just how the Japanese offense would have performed with Tadahito Iguchi and Hideki Matsui in it may be one thing the Japanese can point to if the team fails again Saturday night against Korea.
So who do I think will prevail Saturday night? Predicting these games are extremely hard. The Dominican Republic team looks to be clearly better than the Cuban squad. But so did Puerto Rico. So did Venezuela. I still think the Dominican Republic team will be able to pull this one out. I don't think the D.R. will do it with their hitting, but with their pitching. I also think that the crowd in San Diego will end up backing the Dominican players and Cuba will get a frosty reception. This game will start at noon PT on ESPN. Get your picture in picture working on your TV if you want to follow the NCAA basketball tournament. I think the Dominican hitters will be able to hit one or two balls over the fence and prevail.
Japan-Korea III will start at 7 pm PT and will also be shown live on ESPN. Can the Koreans again find a way to frustrate their longtime rivals? Or will Japan finally be able to string together enough hits? I don't think Japan will be able to do it. PETCO, even though it's been scaled down a bit this year, is not likely going to give up many home runs. Both teams have hitters who can spray the ball around, but the Korean outfielders have shown that they can track down just about everything. The only edge in the outfield Japan will have is with Ichiro who has played in the U.S. long enough to not be intimidated by an irregularly shaped outfield fence where balls may come off at odd angles. Nearly every stadium in Asia has nice smoothly curved symmetrical fences.
This game should be low-scoring. Expect a couple of sacrifices. And I expect another Korean win. I just think they are one of those teams that, in a short period of time, is performing far above its anticipated level. The team is just doing everything well.
But if my predictions hold and we get a Dominican Republic-Korea final, who will win? Well, if it comes to that, I think the Korean spell will finally be broken. And the ablility of the Dominican batters to come up with home runs will be the difference. And the Dominican Republic will leave the WBC as its first champions.
As for other members of Toaster, here are there picks:
Carroll - Japan
Arneson - Japan
Weisman - Korea
Smart - Dominican Republic
Carminati - Dominican Republic (but he likes Villanova too)
Corcoran - Korea Siegrist - Cuba - late addition
And with these precincts reporting the totals are:
Dominican Republic - 3
Korea - 2
Japan - 2
Cuba - 1