Classic matchups set for Round 2
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
The original 16 is down to an all-Earth eight, and two sparkling coastal cities representing both sides of the United States will showcase this now-international pastime in Round 2.
There isn't much time to prognosticate, either.
Pool 1 begins Sunday in PETCO Park in San Diego, home of Major League Baseball's Padres and the site of the inaugural World Baseball Classic finale won by Japan in 2006.
This time around, the Japanese club, again headed by pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka and outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, heads into Round 2 as the runner-up in its first-round pool after losing a 1-0 decision to Korea in the final game of the Tokyo Dome series.
Meanwhile, Cuba and Mexico come off strong showings in Pool B of the first round, which was contested in Mexico City. The Cubans, who finished second to Japan in the '06 Classic, will look for revenge in San Diego and come in undefeated after a 16-4 rout of Mexico to win Pool B.
The Cubans will get a chance for that revenge right away in their first game of the second round at 4 p.m. ET Sunday, a rematch of the 2006 Classic final that Matsuzaka and the Japanese team won, 10-6.
"It is the repeat game," Cuban manager Higinio Velez said. "It's a chance for us to get back at them, and this might be an anticipated final. Japan is not the only team that has good players. There are many teams with great quality. We're thinking in each game, we're thinking about Japan and then the day after whoever we're up against. We're not worried. We know what their quality is. We respect them. We're going to just be ready."
Mexico will be ready, too, because it is well aware of the Cubans' balanced, slugger-packed lineup and stable of power pitchers. And, as infielder Jorge Cantu said, the Mexicans will have to beat Japan and Korea in other ways to advance to the semifinals in Los Angeles.
"Well, I mean, Korea and Japan are pretty much both the same teams; they play the little game," Cantu said. "They play the bunt, they play the moving-the-runners-over. They sacrifice themselves. They hit the ball the other way with authority. That's their strength. We're just going to try to match them."
The possible Cinderella story of this pool is a tough call considering how well all four teams have fared at the international level in recent years, but we'll still go with Korea, which has to get out of the shadow of Japan to prove there's another major Classic championship contender coming out of Asia.
Korea won the 2008 Olympic gold medal against a field with a lot less Major League talent across the board than we're seeing in this tournament, not to mention the fact that the other three teams in this pool have more big league stars on their rosters than Korea.
Pool 2 begins Saturday in Dolphin Stadium in Miami, where the Florida Marlins play their home games but will surrender their field to Venezuela and the United States from first-round Pool C and Puerto Rico and the miracle Netherlands squad from Pool D.
The Americans get a tough assignment in their first game, having to play 3-0 Puerto Rico, and the Venezuelans will have to meet the darlings of the tournament, the Dutch team that knocked the championship-contending Dominican Republic out in stunning fashion.
Team USA will want to make up for 2006, when it went 1-2 in Round 2, losing to Korea and Mexico and being eliminated from the tournament. Shortstop Derek Jeter says the team will have to perform better.
"I don't think you necessarily learn a lesson (from what happened in 2006)," Jeter said. "I think you just understand that it's a short tournament, and ... every game is important. So you have to come out with intensity every game. Not saying we didn't do that the first time around. We just didn't play very well."
In the other opening-round game, Pool C winner Venezuela, with its Major League murderers' row of sluggers Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera, Bobby Abreu, Ramon Hernandez, Melvin Mora and Carlos Guillen, has to face the biggest Cinderella of this year's Classic and one of the most amazing international baseball stories of all time.
Who else? The Netherlands.
The Dutch team did beat the Dominican Republic twice to end that championship contender's Classic in stunning fashion, but The Netherlands also lost to Puerto Rico twice and is batting a Classic-low .151 as a team with three RBIs in four games. The "honkbal" hitters will have to step up big-time to make it to the semis, no matter how well the team is pitching and playing defense.
With what his players have already accomplished and with the challenge the Dutchmen face to continue their astonishing ascension to baseball's international elite, perhaps it was wise for Netherlands manager Rod Delmonico to say what he said when asked about how Round 2 looks for his club.
"After the wars that we've been through," he said, "I don't think I'll worry about who we tee it up against."
Doug Miller is reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.