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03/12/2006 Archived Entry: "2006 WBC First Round Review"

So Far, So Good...And Some Surprises

by Bruce Baskin, VIVA BEISBOL editor

With one week gone and one week remaining, the inaugural World Baseball Classic has reached the midway point with eight of the original 16 national teams remaining. While things have not gone perfectly, thus far this WBC seems to be laying the proper groundwork for similar tournaments of this sort in the future.

There have been both surprises and disappointments in the WBC. Perhaps the biggest surprise at this point has been the performance of the South Korean team in sweeping through Pool A competition with three straight victories. A win over China was deemed a near-certainty for South Korea, and victory over Taiwan looked to be a little tougher but probable. Topping Ichiro Suzuki and Japan, in Tokyo, was the shocker. Nobody expected the peninsular upstarts to defeat a Japanese team loaded with veteran talent from that country's two leagues, but South Korean pitchers have allowed just three runs in three first-round contests, and showed their mettle by shutting down a Japan lineup that had crushed both China and Taiwan. For their part, Taiwan showed that they are nowhere near the level Japan is at; and although they are in some regards comparable to South Korea in development, they are not as far along. China was the darkhorse in Pool A, a country to which baseball has been entirely foreign until recently. The Chinese have a long way to go to even catch up with Taiwan (a fact that no doubt brings displeasure to some folks in Beijing), but there is no shortage of available manpower to build a program and Jim Lefebvre seems to be the right guy to manage them at this stage. Check back in ten years. While the long money is on Japan to advance from Pool 1 play in Anaheim this week, people are no longer looking past and discounting the Koreans.

Whereas South Korea was an early surprise in the WBC because of their success, the United States has also been an early surprise, but for the wrong reasons. Expected to cruise through their Pool B schedule in Arizona against Mexico, Canada and South Africa, the USA barely beat Mexico 2-0 before losing an 8-6 stunner to Canada. It took a 17-0 final day pasting of outmatched South African for the USA to reach the second round, but it is perhaps beginning to dawn on people that the United States will be required to do more than merely show up for games to win them. While the USA has by far the strongest bullpen in the WBC (and perhaps ever), there may be a lack of top-notch depth among the starters and some of the everyday players are not people ordinarily thought of as the best the USA has to offer. Few people would consider Randy Winn to be of the same quality as Barry Bonds as a player. The competition will only get tougher for the USA. Mexico has been one of the WBC surprise teams, too. The Mexicans are coming off a tough winter in which they failed to make it past a pre-Olympic qualifying tournament in Arizona last November and the Mexican Pacific League champ Mazatlan Venados were winless at last month's Caribbean Series in Venezuela. Perhaps licking their wounds a little upon arrival in Phoenix, Mexico was able to hang tough against the USA before exploding for 19 runs in two wins over Canada and South Africa. Lost in the offensive onslaught was the outstanding pitching the Mexicans received from starters Rodrigo Lopez and Esteban Loaiza in two of the games. Canada has made much improvement in the past few years, and although their win over the United States was definitely an upset, this is a program moving in the right direction. Nobody expected a thing from the South Africans, to whom baseball is as unfamiliar as it is to the Chinese. However, even though the Springboks lost all three games they played in Pool B, there were some glimmers of hope that they were building a foundation for a program that can improve in years to come. In Pool 1, the United States is considered likely to reach the semifinals along with Japan, but have been served notice that they can not take it for granted. Mexico is probably the X factor in Pool 1: Not quite good enough to advance, but good enough to be a spoiler and send someone packing their bags...for home, not San Diego and the semis.

Pool 2 is going to be an All-Latin affair, and will appropriately enough be played in San Juan, Puerto Rico. San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium played host to the Montreal Expos for several series in 2004 before the franchise was shifted to Washington last spring, and will host part of next winter's Caribbean Series. For fans who think the WBC is just an exhibition series, watch a few games from this pool. With Venezuela, Cuba and the Dominican Republic joining host Puerto Rico in this six-game stage, many North American fans will, for the first time, witness the sheer passion with which these players and fans approach baseball. No matter who advances from this pool (and it figures to be a real donnybrook), the atmosphere surrounding the games in San Juan could well be the spark to ignite some interest in the WBC from a blase North American audience.

Cuba and host Puerto Rico advanced from Pool C in San Juan, beating out Panama and the Netherlands. Puerto Rico, which features such players as Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Javier Vazquez, pounded the Cubans 12-2 Friday night to finish 3-0 in pool play while Cuba ended up at 2-1. Like their counterparts from South Korea, Puerto Rican pitchers allowed just three runs in the first round. Cuba came in as one of the true mystery teams of the WBC, long regarded as supremely talented, but not tested by top-notch professional competition prior to this tournament. While their image as a baseball superpower has been hurt from the beating administered by Puerto Rico and an unexpectedly-close 8-6 win over a Panama team not considered one of the World Classic's better sides, outfielders Yoandy Garlobo and Osmani Urrutia have led a good batting order and starter Omari Romero looked solid in 4.1 shutout innings last week. The Netherlands pulled off one of the big shockers of the tournament Friday, as Shairon Martis tossed a seven-inning no-hitter against Panama. While the Dutch were not regarded as a Pool C contender, their lineup did include Atlanta star Andruw Jones and Sharnol Adriana from the Mexican League's San Luis Tunero. Adriana was Viva Beisbol's 2005 Most Valuable Player for the Liga, and batted .333 playing first base for the Netherlands. Panama was winless in three games, batting only .165 as a team. Playing at home, Puerto Rico figures as one of the favorites to advance from Pool 1, while Cuba will have to get much better pitching to stave off elimination. There are no Netherlands nor Panamas in the second round.

Venezuela and the Dominican Republic made short work of Pool D competition to advance to the second stanza. The Dominicans were one of the strongest all-around pool play teams in the WBC, batting .314 and getting a 3.00 ERA from their pitchers in running the table in Orlando. Their starters may be the best in the tournament. Venezuela went 2-1, but only because their own pitchers were able to bail out a lineup that only batted .235. To move on to the Final Four in San Diego, the Venezuelans will simply have to start hitting because their pitching can't be expected to continue to carry the team on their backs against much tougher competition. Both Italy and Australia were badly outclassed in this pool, and Italy was able to sneak away with a 1-2 record because someone HAD to win a game between these two teams. Italy is considered to have perhaps the best pro baseball league in Europe, but in a nation where soccer rules without question and basketball is a distant second in public affection, baseball is little more than a cult sport among Italians. Somewhat surprising was the impotent showing by Australia, a country that has produced major league ballplayers and at one time had a winter pro league of its own run by former Milwaukee Brewer player Dave Nilsson (himself an Aussie). While baseball has never challenged cricket as a bat-and-ball sport Down Under, the game seems to have regressed there...or at least stood still while the rest of the world has gone about improving. The Dominicans have the best shot at moving past San Juan into the semis, while Venezuela's potent lineup is certainly capable of lifting their team into the final round.

In sum, most of the final eight teams are the ones people generally expected to be left standing after the first round of the WBC concluded. However, they did not all arrive in the fashion many people expected. There are no doubt more plot twists and turns to come this final week. After all, it's baseball.

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