3/16/2013 3:03 A.M. ET
Dutch head to San Francisco for date with destiny
By Alden Gonzalez / MLB.com
PEORIA, Ariz. -- So, what if the Dutch actually win this thing?
It's a very relevant question, now that The Kingdom of the Netherlands is a mere two victories away from being crowned champions of a World Baseball Classic on which nobody expected them to have much of an impact.
"It's amazing that we're here, but I know it's going to be very special if we can accomplish this feat," Meulens said after an 8-1 exhibition victory over the Mariners on Friday night, a few hours before leaving for San Francisco's AT&T Park, site of his team's semifinal game in three days. "We're loose. Guys are having a great time playing. I don't think they care who's on the other side of the field right now."
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You have to understand, though -- the Dutch winning a worldwide, professional baseball tournament is like the United States getting first place in an international competition in croquet.
Baseball is popular in the tiny island of Curacao, a constituent country with a population of less than 150,000. But in The Netherlands, no more than 15,000 of the 17 million people are said to be involved in baseball. That's .09 percent. Comparatively, more than 1.5 million play soccer.
"Soccer is the No. 1, 2 and 3 sport in Holland, basically," 7-foot-1 Dutch pitcher and Reds Minor Leaguer Loek Van Mil said. "There's nothing else."
This is a team whose leader and most recognizable figure, Andruw Jones, is well past his prime and currently without a Major League gig. This is a team with only three players -- Nats backup outfielder Roger Bernadina, Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons and newly added Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen -- who are expected to play in the Major Leagues in 2013.
This is a team that has no business being among the final four of a tournament with powerhouses like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Japan and the United States.
But don't tell them that.
"You look over all these years and the extra talent we have this time, we just know that we can play with everybody and play this game," said bench coach Robert Eenhoorn, the former big league infielder who serves as technical director for The Netherlands' national baseball team. "We're not intimidated by big teams."
In the 2006 Classic, when the squad was eliminated in the first round, the Dutch were just happy to be here. Heading into '09, when they stunned the Dominicans twice in the first round, the goal was to advance. For this year's event, taking place two years after The Netherlands became the first European team to win the IBAF Baseball World Cup, they saw winning it all as a realistic goal.
So, you may have been mildly surprised to see them breeze through Korea and Australia in the first round. And you might have been shocked that they beat Cuba, ranked No. 1 internationally, twice in the second round.
But maybe you should look a little closer.
Team Netherlands has a gluttony of talented young shortstops, like Simmons, who Meulens called "the most exciting player in this tournament;" Profar, the No. 1 prospect in baseball; Xander Bogaerts, the top-ranked player in the Red Sox's system; and Jonathan Schoop, a middle infielder who is ranked fourth with the Orioles.
Bernadina and Wladimir Balentien, the former big leaguer who has hit a combined 62 homers in Japan the last two years, gives them a formidable outfield. Jones, mainly the designated hitter, is a key veteran presence. Diegomar Markwell, the likely Monday starter, has been a steady hand for an otherwise flimsy rotation, giving up just one run in 10 innings. Jensen, who had a 2.35 ERA and 25 saves in the Majors last season, is a huge addition to the back of the bullpen.
And they're playing like a team with nothing to lose.
"We have a really good, young group, and we've managed to stick together and play the right way," said Jones, who will spend the 2013 season playing in Japan. "Anything can happen in this final. You have to take care of that first game -- you have to eliminate your mistakes, you have to pitch right, you have to play good defense. And we have a good chance because we have the guys to do all that stuff."
After outscoring the Padres and Mariners, 17-4, at Peoria Sports Complex on back-to-back days, Team Netherlands boarded their two-hour flight to the Bay Area, site of the four-team, single-elimination championship round -- and the last leg of a journey that has taken them from Arizona to Taiwan to Japan to Arizona again.
They'll have a light workout at AT&T Park at 2:15 p.m. PT on Saturday and 9:45 a.m. on Sunday.
Then, as the Pool 1 runner-up to two-time champion Japan, Team Netherlands will play the Pool 2 winner -- either the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico -- at 6 p.m. on Monday night, in a game that will be televised on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes.
For the first time, the biggest television station in The Kingdom of the Netherlands, NOS, will broadcast the game, too.
How many will actually watch? Tough to say. The popular speed-skating season ended a week ago, but soccer is reaching the climax of its season over there. And, oh yeah, it'll be 2 a.m. in The Netherlands when their team's semifinal game begins.
"I'd like to say it means a lot to them, but I don't think it does," Van Mil said. "Baseball is just not a big sport. It's soccer."
But winning the Classic, an incomparable baseball stage for a nation that doesn't really have a professional league, can change everything in the Netherlands.
It'll never get to the level of soccer, but Eenhoorn's goal is to make baseball the clear No. 2 sport in his home country. He's helped build six academies there since he took over. And in April, a more than $20 million stadium that can seat up to 29,000 fans will open near the capital of Amsterdam, which Eenhoorn hopes will house the first Major League contest in Europe.
Win two more games, and suddenly the doors can swing open for this nation.
"Winning the World Cup was nice, and it gave us a lot of publicity," Eenhoorn said. "But winning at a stage, at a platform, like this, will give you recognition all over the world and will open up a lot different opportunities. It helps. It really helps. There's no doubt about it."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.