Quiet but strong contenders in Pool 1
Top three finishers from 2006 Classic among the four at PETCO Park
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
But over in Pool 1, which features the top three finishers from the 2006 tournament, and they're all looking very strong, thank you very much.
Yes, Japan, Cuba and Korea are alive and well heading to Sunday's opener of Pool 1 at PETCO Park in San Diego, and they're joined by a slugging Mexico team that had its ups and downs in the first round but still survived with a very talented roster intact.
Japan and Cuba, which met in the inaugural Classic championship game that Japan won, 10-6, will square off right away Sunday at 4 p.m. ET.
And with Major League stars such as Japan's Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ichiro Suzuki, Korea's Shin-Soo Choo and Mexico's Adrian Gonzalez, Jorge Cantu and Joakim Soria, plus a deep and experienced Cuban team, it's very possible that the 2009 Classic champion will come out of San Diego, not Miami.
Here's a closer look at all four teams competing in Pool 1:
Pool 1 opener: vs. Cuba, Sunday, 4 p.m. ET
'09 first round:
Runner-up of Pool A in Tokyo
Beat China, 4-0
Beat Korea, 14-2
Lost to Korea, 1-0
'06 result: Won the inaugural World Baseball Classic championship with a 5-3 record, beating Cuba, 10-6, in the final
MLB-affiliated players: 5
Key players: Matsuzaka, the big-game pitcher who added a World Series ring with the Boston Red Sox the year after leading Japan to its '06 Classic triumph; Ichiro, the indispensable leadoff man who has more than 3,000 hits combining his Japanese and American careers; and Akinori Iwamura, the second baseman and spark plug in the Tampa Bay Rays' surprising 2008 postseason run.
Even without '06 mound standout Koji Uehara, who is in Spring Training camp with the Baltimore Orioles, the Japanese are getting it done with their arms (1.08 team ERA so far) while their bats (.258 team average through three games) still have yet to heat up.
Young sensation Yu Darvish lived up to his hype, pitching five scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out six. Hisashi Iwakuma (5 1/3 innings, five strikeouts) also pitched well in a loss.
Infielders Hiroyuki Nakajima and Shuichi Murata have helped generate a good portion of Japan's offense, with Nakajima among the Classic's current leaders in on-base percentage and Murata near the top of the tournament with five RBIs.
Pool 1 opener: vs. Mexico, Sunday, 11 p.m. ET
'09 first round:
Won Pool A in Tokyo
Beat Chinese Taipei, 9-0
Lost to Japan, 14-2
Beat China, 14-0
Beat Japan, 1-0
'06 result: Advanced to the semifinals with tournament-best 6-1 record, lost to Japan
MLB-affiliated players: 1
Key players: Shin-Soo Choo, the slugger who has been cleared by the Cleveland Indians to rejoin the Korean team after a triceps scare; Jung Keun Bong, the starting pitcher who has thrown a Classic-high 8 1/3 innings over two games and not given up a run; and Tae Kyun Kim, who's batting .417 and is one off the Classic lead with six RBIs.
Team Korea came back in dramatic fashion to beat Japan and win Pool A in the first round after being mercy-ruled by the Japanese in the teams' first meeting. Several of the players said that win gives them confidence heading into the next round.
The Koreans won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games and finished third in the 2006 Classic, so they're familiar with the pressure of high-stakes international tournament play.
And so far in this Classic, they haven't hit their stride on either side of the ball, with a middle-of-the-pack team batting average (.259) and a decent but not overpowering pitching performance (3.66 team ERA, 25 strikeouts in 32 innings).
Pool 1 opener: vs. Japan, Sunday, 4 p.m. ET
'09 first round:
Won Pool B in Mexico City
Beat South Africa, 8-1
Beat Australia, 5-4
Beat Mexico, 16-4
'06 result: Advanced to finals, lost to Japan
MLB-affiliated players: 0
Key players: Outfielder Frederich Cepeda is batting .500 and leading the Classic with three home runs; pitcher Albertin Chapman is a 22-year-old left-hander who can hit 100 mph on the radar gun; infielder Yulieski Gourriel had a two-hit, four-RBI game against Mexico on Friday to raise his tournament average to .333.
Once again, Cuba came to play in the World Baseball Classic, cruising to victory in two of three of its first-round Pool B games and coming up clutch with a comeback victory against Australia when it needed it the most.
The Cubans have been robust on offense (.394 team batting average through three games, 11 homers) and stingy on the mound (3.33 team ERA, 29 strikeouts in 25 innings).
They're also looking forward to the immediate rematch of the Classic final from 2006 against Japan.
Pool 1 opener: vs. Korea, Sunday, 11 p.m. ET
'09 first round:
Runner-up of Pool B in Mexico City
Lost to Australia, 17-7
Beat South Africa, 14-3
Beat Australia, 16-1
Lost to Cuba, 16-4
'06 result: Finished sixth, defeated the United States, 2-1, in Round 2
MLB-affiliated players: 17
Key players: First baseman Gonzalez is the top RBI man in the Classic with seven; former big-league outfielder Karim Garcia is playing with passion in this Classic and has three homers and five RBIs to show for it; closer Soria looked as dominant as usual in his only inning of work and should be primed for more meaningful action.
Mexico advanced to the second round of this year's Classic by taking advantage of a home crowd at Foro Sol Stadium in Mexico City and pounding the baseball all over and out of the yard. Heading into Round 2, the Mexican team is batting .346 as a team with a tournament-leading 12 homers and 37 RBIs.
On the flip side of the equation, however, Mexico's pitching has been porous. After the seven-inning mercy-rule loss to Cuba on Friday night, the Mexican team ERA sat at 10.50.
Manager Vinny Castilla has had faith in his team all along and still should feel good about his power-packed lineup. With some better pitching, Mexico could prove to be the surprise team of this bracket.
Doug Miller is reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.