It’s been six long years but the World Baseball Classic is back and with 20 teams playing around the globe in the first round, it’s better than ever. The first two games in Pool A were played last night and this morning in Taiwan, with the Kingdom of the Netherlands coming from behind in the 6th inning to defeat Cuba 4-2 while Panama lit up the group hosts Chinese Taipei by a score of 12-5.
For those wondering, the first round format consists of 20 teams evenly split among four groups/pools participating in round robin play:
Pool A (Taichung- Chinese Taipei)
Pool B (Tokyo- Japan)
Pool C (Phoenix- USA)
Pool D (Miami- N/A, but basically the Dominican Republic)
The winners and runners up of each group will advance to a single elimination tournament with one half of the bracket (Pool A & B qualified teams) playing in Tokyo while the other (Pool C & D qualified teams) plays in Miami. The semi-finals and finals will be played in Miami.
It should be noted that this format means that a team from Pool A or Pool B will face a team from Pool C or Pool D, meaning that the Dominican Republic and the United States cannot meet in the tournament final, as they would have to face to each other in the semi-finals in the best case scenario of both teams.
HSHH WBC Predicted Winner: Dominican Republic (4), Japan (3), USA (1)
Shack- Dominican Republic
Nick- Dominican Republic
CK- Dominican Republic
Amanda- United States
Zander- Dominican Republic
Ryan M- United States
This is not meant to be a WBC preview article as MLB.com, Fox, and ESPN have that covered. From this moment onward, this article is just going to serve as the random musings of a baseball fan. I am just going to share some of the things I am excited and or thinking about as this competition gets underway.
Cuba in Pool A
Cuba being placed in Pool A all the way over in Taiwan is a bit disappointed when they could’ve been placed in Pool D to play in Miami, which is a city known for its Cuban-American population. I feel for those fans that have been deprived of seeing team Cuba firsthand. I understand there are certain mitigating factors at play, but if it had been me, I’d have sent Israel to Pool A and kept Cuba close to home to boost the atmosphere in Pool D.
The NPB and KBO are better than you think
This will be showcased a lot, particularly with Japan and South Korea for obvious reasons. But last night we even saw Cuban starting pitcher Yariel Rodriguez of the NPB’s Chunichi Dragons show some fantastic stuff against the Netherlands, making some of the Dutch MLBers look a little silly at times. I believe the NPB to be the second best baseball league in the world and even a step above AAA. Japan is a favorite to reach the finals and the bulk of their team is made up of NPB stars. The KBO, which many of us watched during the pandemic, isn’t quite as good but is still near the same level as AAA and should not be scoffed at.
South Korea vs Japan
These two countries are not fond of each other, which makes sense given… well you know, history. They are both in Pool B and will face each other at least once in Tokyo during the first round and could face off a second time in Miami in the semi-finals if they both get there. Unfortunately, they play at 5am Eastern on Friday, March 10th, so most Americans will miss at least the beginning of the game. Tokyo is already going to be electric, but expect to see them take that atmosphere to another level when they face South Korea. On the flip side, the Koreans will be doing everything they can to take down their bitter rival.
Next Big Japanese Stars
Between the NPB and the South Korea/Japan matchup, I know I’ve already talked a ton about the Japanese but I don’t care, I am super excited to watch them compete. A big reason why I’ve chosen them to go all the way is because of their insane pitching staff. Yes, they have Padres ace Yu Darvish and face of the MLB Shohei Ohtani, but the two pitchers I’m most looking forward to seeing are Yoshinobu Yamamoto of the Orix Buffaloes and Roki Susaki of the Chiba Lotte Marines. Yamamoto, at 24, is already a 4x NPB all-star and 2x Eiji Sawamura Award (NPB Cy Young equivalent) winner. He boasts a career 1.95 ERA and looks primed for a switch to MLB. Roki Susaki is only 21-years-old and the Japanese high school baseball record holder for fasted pitched (101 MPH). Last season, he pitched a 19 strikeout perfect game in only his second NPB season. Japan has a history of showcasing at least one pitching talent at the WBC that ends up with said pitching talent sparking massive bidding wars between MLB teams:
Daisuke Matsuzaka in ’06, signed by Red Sox in 2007. (Two time WBC MVP in 2006 and 2009)
Yu Darvish in ’09, signed by Rangers in 2012.
Masahiro Tanaka in ’13, signed by Yankees in 2014.
Shoehei Ohtani would’ve made this list for the 2017 WBC, but he had been forced to withdraw from the tournament due to an ankle injury. He joined the Angels in 2018. One or both Yamamoto or Susaki could be the next big Japanese arm to spark an offseason bidding war.
Can the Czechs win a game?
The Czech Republic are a surprise debutante in this edition of the World Baseball Classic after they beat Germany and Spain to clinch one of the two European qualifier spots (Great Britain won the other spot, the Netherlands, Italy, and Israel were automatically qualified due to previous WBC participation). Placed in Pool B with Japan, South Korea, China, and Australia, the Czechs are easily the biggest underdogs in the entire tournament. Their roster consists of just two players in MLB organizations (plus former MLBer Eric Sogard) and the bulk of their players have day jobs in careers other than baseball. For example, their center fielder is a high school teacher and a number of players work in sales. For them to just win a single game would be massive and something to tell their grandchildren. Additionally, they’ll get to tell their grandchildren that they played against Shoehei Ohtani in his prime in a game that actually meant something.
Does USA have the pitching to go all the way?
The United States arguably have the best lineup in the world, with only the Dominican Republic’s 1-9 hitters in the same conversation. The Americans should coast to a Pool C win, but do they have the pitching to not slip up in the single elimination phases of the tournament? While the DR boasts the likes of Sandy Alcantara and Cristian Javier alongside a plethora of stud in-their-prime bullpen arms, team USA is turning to Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, and a far less impressive group of relievers. Yes, the pitchers team USA have are more than capable of handling Pool C in the first round. The question is whether they’ll be able to handle a powerful Puerto Rican or Venezuelan lineup in the quarterfinals and an elite Dominican lineup in the semi-finals? Once they get to the knockout stages, there will be no room for error and I’m not confident in this pitching staff to be perfect three games in a row against stiff competition.
Can the Dominican Republic run the table?
Look, the DR is easily the best team on paper from top to bottom and I’ve seen people on twitter claiming they might go undefeated. If they go on to win the WBC, I think it’s after they drop a surprising game in pool play that serves as a wake up call. If they go undefeated in pool play, I think it’s possible they could be upset in the single elimination stage, most likely by the United States. Obviously, since I chose Japan to win the WBC, I expect the DR to lose at least once in the single elimination phase.
Puerto Rico or Venezuela?
If the Dominican Republic does what is expected, then they will win Pool D and advance to the quarterfinals. But which other team takes the second slot from Pool D, Puerto Rico or Venezuela? While unlikely, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the best team in the world on paper in the DR has a rocky showing and fails to reach the quarterfinals, but for the sake of this argument, let’s assume they advance and the runner up spot comes down to these two countries (no disrespect to Nicaragua or Israel). Both rosters seemed fairly evenly matched, and I can’t wait to see which one comes out on top. My money is on Ronald Acuna Jr. and Venezuela, but a lot will rely on the outcome of their games with the DR and each other, the latter of which will be played on Sunday at 7:00pm on FS1.
Let’s just have fun
More than anything I am just looking forward to electric atmosphere, good baseball, and emotional reactions from the players as they represent their birth countries and/or the countries of their heritage. International sports are a special kind of fun and it’s a blast to have meaningful, playoff style baseball in March. It’s a tournament, so anything can happen. Let’s just enjoy while it’s here because it will be at least four years before we see it again.
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