3/6/2013 1:54 A.M. ET
World Baseball Classic set to go full throttle
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
PHOENIX -- While on the other side of the planet the World Baseball Classic heads into the second round this weekend at Tokyo Dome, first-round pool play begins in Arizona and Puerto Rico.
The survivors in Tokyo are two-time defending Classic champion Japan, Cuba, Chinese Taipei and Kingdom of the Netherlands.
In San Juan, Puerto Rico, Venezuela opens against the Dominican Republic on Thursday and Spain faces host Puerto Rico on Friday.
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Back in the desert, Italy plays Mexico at Salt River Fields on Thursday, Canada meets Italy at the same Spring Training facility on Friday, and in the premier game of the pool, Mexico faces Team USA on Friday night at Chase Field.
All the games will be televised on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes in the U.S., and tickets can be purchased for any of the remaining games at www.worldbaseballclassic.com.
"At least we have the benefit of a couple of practice games here," said U.S. manager Joe Torre, whose team played a 4-4 tie against the White Sox on Tuesday and will face the Rockies at Salt River Fields on Wednesday night. "But the mood of this team and these guys is very upbeat. They've melded pretty good at this point for a group that's been together for such a short period of time."
The U.S. hasn't finished higher than fourth place in the first two editions of the Classic. The Americans didn't make it out of the second round at Anaheim in 2006 and lost a semifinal game to the Japanese in '09 at Dodger Stadium.
This year, the second round for the Arizona and Puerto Rico winners is in Miami's Marlins Park from March 12-16. The semifinals are on March 17-18 and the championship game is on March 19, all at San Francisco's AT&T Park.
The Dominicans began their tournament preparations in grand style on Tuesday in Clearwater, Fla., whipping the Phillies, 15-2, and pounding out 28 hits. The U.S. might not have lost the game against the White Sox, but it lost Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira for the tournament because of a strained right wrist. Teixeira never saw a minute of action. At Salt River Fields, the Mexicans defeated the D-backs, 1-0, and held Arizona to four hits.
In that game, Brewers right-hander Yovani Gallardo made the start and worked one inning. Afterward, he proclaimed himself so improved from a strained right groin that Mexico manager Rick Renteria said Gallardo would start against Team USA and Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey on Friday night. A crowd of close to 40,000 is expected. Gallardo is also excited about facing Brewers teammate Ryan Braun, the starting left fielder for the U.S.
"It's going to be an exciting game all around," Gallardo said. "No matter what sport it is, Mexico-U.S. always brings a lot of excitement. We got to talk about it a little bit going into this thing. It's the first time I'm going to get a chance to face [Braun]. It got close once in the Futures Game. He was on deck. So we'll be there all over again."
For the first time in tournament history, a second-round pool is being staged in Japan. The Japanese and the Cubans, longtime rivals at all levels of international play, have been there before. In fact, Japan defeated Cuba, 10-6, at San Diego's Petco Park to win the first Classic in 2006. The Dutch made it out of the first round in Puerto Rico four years ago by upsetting the Dominican Republic twice. This time they have their sights set on San Francisco.
"Being born in Holland, I take a lot of pride in that," said Hall of Famer and Dutch pitching coach Bert Blyleven before the tournament began. "I get a lot of pleasure helping these kids out. What we did four years ago, beating the Dominican Republic twice down in Puerto Rico, for the Dutch it was like winning the World Series. The celebration I went through back then is something I'd like to experience again this time. Baseball is so international now, and anything we can do in this tournament to enhance baseball in Europe I think is a very positive thing."
This is the first time that Chinese Taipei has made it out of the opening round. Previously, they were 1-4 in tournament play. The ouster of Korea early was a major upset. The Koreans defeated Chinese Taipei and finished in a three-way tie at 2-1 but were ousted by run differential. In the first two Classics, the Koreans powered their way through the second round, losing epic games to the Japanese in the semifinals in 2006 and in the final game at Dodger Stadium in '09.
Chinese Taipei manager Chang-Heng Hsieh was proud that his team moved on.
"Our players have worked hard to give their best in the three games in the first round," Hsieh said. "I would like to thank my team and hope that we will continue to perform well. Korea is a tough opponent ... we have not done well against them in recent years. We will continue to improve ourselves, and hopefully one day we can surpass other strong teams in international competitions."
He may have his chance. There's plenty of baseball still to play in the Classic and perhaps a few more upsets to come.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.