After 32 games being played from San Juan to Tokyo, the inaugural World Baseball Classic is headed to its final Monday night at 6 pm PT in San Diego. The last two teams standing are Cuba and Japan. Both teams have sort of staggered and stumbled along the way to the championship game, but they have survived. What both teams have shown is that the most important factor in the WBC has not been hitting or pitching or defense. The most important factor has been preparation.
Cuba, like the NHL during the Winter Olympics, has paused its domestic season to allow its national team to form and practice for the WBC. The Cubans may not be the most talented team, but they have stayed alive mainly because its hitters don't look like they are still trying to get their timing down.
Japan's season runs concurrently with the MLB season, but Japanese players have always started training camps in the middle of winter. While they might have been lacking in game action, they definitely were in shape and the Japanese pitchers have had pinpoint control, walking just 11 batters in seven games.
As for the 14 teams that have been eliminated, let's look at how they fared. I'll go through them in order by record with team OPS as the tiebreaker.
Korea (6-1) - Until Byung-Hyun Kim melted down in the seventh inning Saturday night in San Diego, the Koreans were the story of the WBC. They won their first six games, including two dramatic wins over Japan and a surprisingly easy win over the USA.
The world got to know Korean first baseman Seong-Yeop Lee, who leads the tournament with five home runs, including key home runs in wins over Japan, Mexico and the USA. Unfortunately for Korea, its offense was spotty after that. Hee-Seop Choi hit one home run and no other Korean homered. Korea scored just 26 runs in seven games and Lee drove in 10 of them.
The Korean pitchers, until Saturday, were nearly unhittable. They still finished the tournament with an ERA of 2.00 and opposing batters collected just 45 hits in 63 innings. The Korean fielders did not make an error. Chan Ho Park gave up no runs in 10 innings of work and saved twothree games. Jae Seo gave up just one run in 14 innings.
Dominican Republic (5-2) - The Dominican Republic came out firing, clobbering Venezuela 11-5 in its first game. The team looked like it would be unstoppable on offense, despite the absence of Manny Ramirez and Vladimir Guerrero. But as the tournament wore on, the D.R. offense became more and more stoppable.
Puerto Rico beat the D.R. 7-1 in the first game of the second round. And the D.R. got to the semifinals with a 2-1 win over Venezuela where the winning run scored on a passed ball.
By the time the Dominican team got to San Diego, the big bats had disappeared. The team managed just seven singles against Cuba and scored its only run on a double error. The Dominicans hit just two home runs after the first round.
Puerto Rico (4-2) - The Boricuas started out fast, winning their first four games in San Juan including a 12-2 crushing of Cuba. The path to the semfinals seemed clear. Then it all went bad for Puerto Rico.
Against Venezuela, Joel Piñeiro gave up a 2-run homer to Endy Chavez and Ivan Maldonado gave up a grand slam to Victor Martinez and Puerto Rico faced an elimination game against Cuba. And Cuba was able to pull out a 4-3 win.
Puerto Rico hit well, despite not being able to use Carlos Delgado except for just one at bat. The team had an OPS of .813, with Jose Cruz leading the way with a 6 for 17 performance. Alex Cintron was 8 for 24, but he made a crucial throwing error in the second game against Cuba that proved to be the difference.
The pitching staff put up a 2.08 ERA, but in its final two games a few bad pitches left Puerto Rico on the outside looking in.
United States (3-3) - Hey, weren't these guys supposed to be playing tomorrow? Barry Bonds said he's available for the next round.
Oh wait. The USA had a lot going for it: a favorable schedule, home crowds, and enough superstars to go around that even if Barry Bonds, C.C. Sabathia, and Billy Wagner dropped out, it shouldn't have made a difference. Sometimes, it even looked like the umpires wanted the USA to advance.
In the end, the personnel didn't make the difference as much as the team's preparation. The USA hitters, with the exception of one game against South Africa, just didn't hit. The USA beat Mexico in one game 2-0, but lost its finale to the same team 2-1. The team managed to get four runs off of Japan and three off of Korea. The USA did score six against Canada, but those all came in one inning and four of them on a Jason Varitek grand slam. The USA team seemed unable to get a hit with a runner on base and instead had to hope that it would hit enough home runs and pitch well enough to win.
Unfortunately for the USA, in both games Dontrelle Willis started, the pitching was bad. Willis pitched just 5 2/3 innings in two games and gave up 8 runs, 10 hits, and 6 walks.
USA manager Buck Martinez likely was feeling the pressure from the MLB teams supplying the players to get at bats for everyone on the roster and also not to play anyone at an unfamiliar position. Except with the outfielders where Jeff Francoeur had to play left field in a game and Vernon Wells had to play right field, while an aging Ken Griffey kept himself planted in center field. Michael Young did get some action at second base as well as short. Apparently, Chipper Jones had completely forgotten how to play the outfield so he could only be a DH and a third baseman.
Derrek Lee was great for the USA, slamming three home runs in four games. But he hurt his shoulder in the win against Japan and Mark Texeira played first in the last two games. Texeira looked like he hadn't swung a bat all winter and he went 0 for 15.
The USA players wanted to win. They definitely weren't taking it easy. But they weren't ready to play at a high level. And it showed.
Mexico (3-3) - In the opening round, Mexico helped out the USA with a 9-1 win over Canada. And in the second round, Mexico knocked out the USA with a 2-1 win. The Mexicans were a team with good pitching and poor hitting and they did about as well as could be expected.
Mexico beat South Africa, Canada and the USA and lost to Korea, USA and Japan. They scored only 23 runs and 10 of those were against South Africa.
As expected, Jorge Cantu was Mexico's best hitter, batting .333 for the WBC and hitting two home runs, one of them a monstrous shot against Canada at Chase Field. Vinny Castilla went 7 for 24, but had just one extra base hit, a double and drove in no runs. Erubiel Durazo was 4 for 22.
Mexico's pitchers had a 2.77 ERA and it took seven of them to hold the USA to one run in the final game of the second round. Esteban Loaiza pitched well against Canada, but poorly against Japan. Rodrigo Lopez lost both his starts, but pitched pretty well giving up just three runs in seven innings.
Venezuela (3-3) - The team I thought would make it to the final was actually more disappointing than the USA. Venezuela had the best pitching staff of the tournament, but Venezuelan manager Luis Sojo had no idea how to use it. And the Venezuelan hitters were MIA.
Venezuela had a team ERA of 3.06, but also a team OPS of .653. No Venezuelan hitter had more than six hits. Bobby Abreu, Magglio Ordoñez, and Carlos Guillen combined to go 7 for 58 with one extra base hit, a double.
Sojo gets credited by me with the biggest managerial blunder of the tournament. In the team's first game of the second round against Cuba, Venezuela trailed 1-0 Cuba after 5 innings. With Johan Santana nearing his pitch limit, Sojo went to his bullpen. He had pitchers such as Carlos Silva, Kelvim Escobar and Gustavo Chacin available. So Sojo called on Giovanni Carrara. And before Carrara was out of the game, it was 6-0 Cuba.
Canada (2-1) - The Canadians failed to advance to the second round because they lost in a three-way tiebreaker among Canada, the USA, and Mexico. Canada's 2-1 record was a bit deceptive.
The Canadians needed a ninth inning rally to get past South Africa in its opener, 11-8. Then Canada was able to parlay some bad pitching by Dontrelle Willis and Al Leiter and some bad outfield play by the US to win 8-6. Then in their final game against Mexico, Jeff Francis, ostensibly the team's ace, was battered in a 9-1 loss.
In just three games, Canada had some gaudy offensive numbers. Adam Stern was 6 for 9 with an inside-the-park homer against the USA. Jason Bay was 5 for 11.
But the pitchers weren't very good. The team had an ERA of 7.33. Paul Quantrill said he would retire at the end of the WBC and he left giving up six runs in 2 1/3 IP. Chris Reitsma got credit for a win against South Africa, but gave up 3 runs in 2 innings.
Taiwan (1-2) - Before the WBC started, many thought that Taiwan would be team that would be advancing along with Japan out of the Asian group. But a 2-0 loss to Korea in the first game of the tournament essentially ended Taiwan's hopes.
In their second game, the Taiwanese lost to Japan 14-3 in an 8-inning mercy rule game. A 12-3 win over China was for cosmetic purposes only.
Dodgers farmhand Chin-ling Hu got 5 hits in 12 at bats and Yung Chi Chan was for 5 for 14 with his team's only home run. The pitchers had an ERA of 6.84.
Italy (1-2) - The Italians started off the tournament with a mercy rule, 10-0 win over Australia in which its pitchers gave up just one hit. But after that, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic showed the Italians that they were going to have to dig up more MLB alums to fill out their roster.
Italy suited up Mike Piazza, Frank Catalanotto, Frank Menechino, Jason Grilli, Dan Miceli, Mike Gallo, and Lenny DiNardo, but it wasn't enough. The Italians don't have a well-developed domestic league and most of its players are just part-time.
Netherlands (1-2) - The Dutch got clobbered by Puerto Rico and Cuba in its first two games, but in their last game, 18-year old Shairon Martis threw a seven-inning no-hitter against Panama to give the team something to look back at fondly.
Andruw Jones was supposed to be the big hitter for the Dutch, but in two games, he went 0 for 6. The Dutch hit no home runs, no triples, and just three doubles.
Even with a seven inning no-hitter, Dutch pitchers still had an ERA of 6.48.
South Africa (0-3) - The team that no one expected to win a game didn't. But it almost did as South Africa led Canada 8-7 going to the ninth inning in Scottsdale. But 17-year old Jared Elario couldn't hold on to the lead and Canada won 11-8. After that Mexico beat RSA 10-4 and the USA needed just five innings for a 17-0 win.
Nearly all of the South African players are amateurs and they were overmatched during the WBC, but the learning experience was valuable.
Shortstop Brett Willemburg was 5 for 10 and first baseman Nathan Dempsey was 5 for 11 and can tell people back home that he got a hit off of Roger Clemens. Not that a lot of South Africans will understand the reference, but it's still an accomplishment. Paul Bell reached base 5 times in 5 trips to the plate against Canada.
China (0-3) - China got to play in the WBC to help prepare its team for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The Chinese baseball program is relatively new and manager Jim Lefebvre did a good job to avoid having his team lose all three of its games by the mercy rule.
The Chinese were outscored 40-6 in three games and they made seven errors. The WBC was a start, but with baseball falling out of the Olympics after 2008, it's unclear whether or not China will still be interested in maintaining a baseball program. At least they don't face a shortage of people who might want to play.
Panama (0-3) - The Panamanians lost a pitchers' duel to Puerto Rico in its opener, 2-1, and then came within a pitch of beating Cuba in its next game, before falling 8-6 in 11 innings. After that, Panama seemed to not care much and was no-hit by Shairon Martis of the Netherlands.
Panama had three major leaguers on its roster, but the one they were counting on the most, Carlos Lee, went 2 for 11 in the tournament. Olmedo Saenz also went 2 for 11. Bruce Chen gave up 2 runs in 5 innings of work against Cuba.
Against Cuba, Panama was tied 6-6 in the ninth and had Ruben Rivera at the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. Yuniesky Maya almost hit Rivera with two pitches. Finally, Rivera blooped a ball out into center that Cuban second baseman Yulieski Gourriel tracked down and Cuba went on to win. And Panama was through.
Australia (0-3) - The Aussies came to the WBC and managed to get just 9 hits in 80 at bats. The pitchers had an ERA of 6.85. Australia's domestic league is out of business for the time being and it's hard for any of the Aussie players to get much work and it showed. Both Italy and Venezuela gave up just one hit to Australia. However, Australia lost to Venezuela just 2-0, a score that would not augur well for Venezuela.