WBC Round 2 preview or Hey, I'm making this up as best I can!
by Bob Timmermann
The World Baseball Classic moves in to its second round Sunday with just eight teams left. Only one team that was eliminated had a winning record in the first round: Canada. Four teams were winless: Panama, Australia, South Africa, and China. The other three (Italy, Netherlands, and Taiwan) were able to scrape out one win for pride.
The eight teams left are now split into two groups, imaginatively called Pool 1 and Pool 2, but I prefer to call them the Anaheim Regional (Pool 1) and the San Juan Regional (Pool 2) because it's March and I'm in a college basketball sort of mood.
The Anaheim Regional has only one team that went undefeated in the first round and that was Korea, a team that many didn't regard highly. But Korea eked out a 3-2 win over rival Japan to gain the top spot from Pool A. Korean pitchers gave up just three runs in three games.
Mexico, the champions of Pool B, bounced back from a 2-0 loss in its opener to Team USA to storm back with big wins over South Africa and Canada. Team USA stumbled against Canada in its second game, 8-6, but restored order with a convincing 17-0 win over South Africa. Combined with Mexico's 9-1 crushing of Canada, the Americans advanced on a tiebreaker.
The USA and Japan kick off play in the Anaheim Regional Sunday at 1 pm PT at Angel Stadium. Mexico and Korea will face each other at 8 pm.
Winning the first game could potentially be a very big deal because the final games in this round are not played on the same day. Korea and Japan will play each other in their final game on March 15 and USA and Mexico will play on March 16. The teams playing the later game will have the advantage of knowing what they have to do and could even be in a position to dictate their semifinal opponent. The top two teams in the Anaheim Regional will play each other in one of the semifinals on March 18 in San Diego.
Team USA appears to be the strongest team in this group. And with the USA already losing one game, it's much more likely that the American players won't take anyone lightly. They know Mexico can pitch, surrendering just seven runs in three games. And Korea gave up only four runs in the first round and Japan gave up eight, the same as the American pitchers.
Pitch limits for this round increase to 80, so Team USA manager Buck Martinez should be able to stretch out his starters more, especially Peavy, who is probably his best starter. This should make it more likely that Al Leiter will be stored in a glass case marked "For Emergency Use Only". Dontrelle Willis had a bad outing against Canada, but he is a pitcher getting ready for the season and he was not alone in having a rough start in this tournament as Carlos Zambrano and Odalis Perez were not exactly sharp either. Will Willis's next outing be better? We'll likely find out Monday when USA takes on Korea, whose has two lefthanded batters, Seong-Yeop Lee and Hee-Seop Choi in the middle of the order.
Japan beat up on the Chinese and Taiwanese pitching staffs, but couldn't do much against the Koreans. The Japanese will have their hands full with Peavy. If Mexico follows its rotation from the first round, the Japanese will draw Francisco Campos in its second game and he is the likely weak link in the Mexican pitching staff. The Japan-Korea game on March 15 is a tossup and if both teams are fighting for a spot in the semis, it should be quite a sight.
Mexico will likely benefit from a friendly crowd in Anaheim, although keeping up their hot hitting in the last two games will help out more. After being shut out by USA, Mexico scored 10 against South Africa and then jumped all over Jeff Francis of Canada and won going away, 9-1. Mexico's hopes of advancing likely rest on the arm of Esteban Loaiza, who should face USA on Thursday. However, Loaiza probably wouldn't be able to pitch in the semifinal if that were the case.
This group is hard to handicap. I think that Team USA will advance and go 3-0 barring a meltdown by a starter. Peavy, when he's on, is a sight to behold as he pours in strike after strike. Willis should pitch better and Roger Clemens, who may want to go out in a blaze of glory, should be tough if he draws Mexico Thursday night. I think Team USA will get one semifinal and the winner of Sunday's Korea-Mexico game will get the other. Korea may not have a lot of offensive threats, but they have a solid pitching staff with Jae Seo, Sunny Kim, Byung-Hyun Kim, and Chan Ho Park. Korea would likely be facing Japan for the other spot in the semifinals in a game on Wednesday and I think that Korea will want another chance to get some additional revenge on their neighbors.
The San Juan Regional features two undefeateds: Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, along with Venezuela and Cuba. Both the P.R. and D.R. teams were supposed to have tough battles against the second place teams in their group, Cuba and Venezuela, but each won easily.
The Dominican Republic team appears to have the best offesne in the tournament after slugging seven home runs in the first round (with none in its third game). Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Moises Alou, Miguel Tejada, and Adrian Beltre should enjoy the cozy confines of Hiram Bithorn stadium, which is just 315 feet down the lines. The Dominican Republic pitching staff doesn't have Pedro Martinez, but seems to be able to provide enough offense that it won't matter. Bartolo Colon should start the game against Puerto Rico, but the second game starter against Cuba is undecided. It could be Odalis Perez or Jorge Sosa.
Venezuela and Puerto Rico will likely decide the second semifinalist when they face each other Monday. Venezuela, after a disappointing 11-5 loss to the D.R. squad in the opener, threw shutouts at Italy and Australia. But the offense, aside from Miguel Cabrera, has been spotty. Venezuela managed just two runs off of an Australian pitching staff that had lost a 10-0 mercy rule shortened game earlier to Italy. Venezuela has the lowest OBP of the eight remaining teams at .758 for what that is worth for three games.
Puerto Rico, after edging Panama 2-1 in the opener, cruised in its final two games, beating the Netherlands 8-3 and then winning a mercy rule shortened game against Cuba 12-2. Puerto Rico will have the home field advantage, but they would rather enjoy the Carlos Delgado advantage.
Delgado sat out the first round with a sore left elbow. So Delgado's spot at first was taken by Javy Lopez and Bernie Williams started at DH and batted leadoff. If Delgado is good to go, Lopez may move over to DH and Williams will be saved as a late-inning pinch-hitter. Puerto Rico has to rely on strong starts from Javier Vazquez and Joel Piñeiro as the bullpen behind them isn't as good as other teams with guys like J.C. Romero and Kiko Calero being the leaders
Cuba, which was the tournament's X-factor coming in, is still something of an X-factor, but with its 12-2 loss to Puerto Rico Friday, the Cubans first loss by the mercy rule since 1983, has cast some doubts about the quality of the team. Second baseman Yulieski Gourriel has been a standout, but the pitching staff seems to be lacking any potential Orlando or Livan Hernandezes. Or even a Jose Contreras. Even a Rene Arocha would be a step in the right direction. Also in Cuba's first game, they will be facing Johan Santana of Venezuela, who is not a pleasant sight for any hitter with the exception of David Ortiz of the D.R. squad, who took him deep in the first game of Pool D.
The San Juan Regional will likely send the Dominican Republic and the winner of Monday's Venezuela-Puerto Rico game (which should be a matchup of Carlos Zambrano and Piñeiro) to the semifinals in San Diego. I think that the D.R. will rattle off three straight wins and Cuba will lose three straight. And I think the home crowd will deliver Puerto Rico to the semis.
What are the chances that I'll be right? Not great. The only team that would truly surprise me to make it to the semis would be Cuba. Just as it is difficult to predict a winner in a postseason series because it's so short, the WBC is even harder to forecast because it's even shorter and there are far more variables in terms of the number of teams and pitchers who have to be used. But I'll be in Anaheim Wednesday watching the Japan-Korea game. Look for me on TV. I'll be the guy in the coat.