Classic certain to earn its name
Every pool has strong teams likely to clash at some point
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
The first of 39 games in the 2009 World Baseball Classic takes place early Thursday morning ET at Tokyo Dome, where defending champion Japan will take on China. That's 39 steps of suspense rivaling the best of Hitchcock, and the action will soon begin.
The tournament features the same 16 countries as in 2006 but has added a few rule wrinkles and some very different rosters while maintaining the undeniable pull and intrigue of star-studded baseball being played for nothing more than national pride, bragging rights and the love of the grand old game.
So now that we're mere hours away from the first pitch, what should we expect from this year's Classic?
Here's a quick primer for each round leading up to the March 21-23 semifinals and final at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, with marquee matchups, players to watch and maybe a few surprises to look out for.
ROUND 1 Pool A
Not only did Japan win the inaugural Classic, but the Samurais did it while overcoming the biggest unexpected success story in 2006 -- the Korean team. Korea went 3-0 in the opening round last year, beating the Japanese team, 3-2, to advance to the next round. Bolstered by the home run power of Seung-Yeop Lee, Korea made it to the semifinals before eventually bowing out to Japan.
Korea then went on to win the gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, setting up what appears to be a no-doubt first-round rematch on Saturday when the Game 1 winner (Japan vs. China) meets the Game 2 winner (Korea vs. Chinese Taipei).
Lee isn't on the Korean team this time around, but enough of the players with recent Olympic experience should have the team confident. Japan, meanwhile, comes back with Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka, although one of the 2006 pitching heroes, Koji Uehara, is now suiting up for the Baltimore Orioles in Spring Training.
It's tough to think that China could be improved enough to give Japan a game on Thursday, and it's difficult to imagine Chinese Taipei pulling off a stunner against Korea, so expect the Asian rivals of 2006 to go at it again this year, starting in that pivotal Saturday matchup.
Things have changed for 2009 in this pool, with Mexico and South Africa coming back but Cuba and Australia playing where the United States and Canada were three years ago. One thing hasn't changed, though, and that's the fact that Cuba remains one of the world's baseball powerhouses and a clear favorite to make it out of this round without breaking much of a sweat.
Mexico has enough Major League sock to follow Cuba, especially given the fact that South Africa is still relatively new to baseball and understandably behind most of these countries in development and Australia also went 0-3 in the 2006 tournament.
The Mexicans, with sluggers Adrian Gonzalez, Jorge Cantu, big-league role players Scott Hairston, Alfredo Amezaga, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Rod Barajas, experienced starters Oliver Perez, Rodrigo Lopez and Jorge Campillo and a lights-out closer in Joakim Soria, should make it to Round 2 and could pull off an upset while there, which they did last year when they knocked the United States out of the tournament.
The fact that the Round 1 games are all at Foro Sol Stadium in Mexico City won't hurt, either, and should help in making the Tuesday matchup between the winners of Game 1 (South Africa vs. Cuba) and Game 2 (Australia vs. Mexico) a likely Cuba vs. Mexico game, which figures to be one of the more emotionally charged games in the 2009 Classic and one that could hold major relevance for later rounds.
"The players are here. The desire is here," Mexico's manager, Vinny Castilla, said. "Everybody is here representing Mexico, and everybody is going to leave everything they have between the lines."
Home-field advantage might not be enough to get Canada past the revenge-minded American team this year, but Toronto's Rogers Centre will host this pool, which also features Italy and another highly touted team that would like to improve upon its 2006 effort: Venezuela.
In 2006, neither Canada nor Italy made it out of the first round, and the U.S. and Venezuela, whom many had touted as championship contenders, didn't advance past the second.
The Canadians are no joke, though, with sluggers Jason Bay of the Red Sox, Justin Morneau of the Twins, Matt Stairs of the Phillies and Joey Votto of the Reds making up a formidable middle of the batting order. That makes their Saturday opening game against the United States must-see MLB.TV.
"We should be able to put up a lot of runs if you look at it on paper," said Morneau, the American League MVP in 2006. "But not everything that should happen on paper actually happens."
The U.S. and Venezuela can attest to that fact, and if they win their first games, they'll play each other on Sunday in what promises to be a parade of Major League All-Stars. On one side of the diamond, you'll have Team USA's deep roster of veterans Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones, young stars Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Braun, Jake Peavy and David Wright.
And then there's Venezuela, with the firepower of Miguel Cabrera, Bobby Abreu, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen and Melvin Mora and the stingy pitching of Felix Hernandez and closer Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez.
The "D" in Pool D might as well stand for "Dominicana," because the Dominican Republic enters this first round as the clear choice to win all three games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
That's exactly what happened in the Dominicans' first round in 2006, and they followed it up with a march all the way to the semifinals, where they lost in a hard-fought 3-1 decision to Cuba.
This time, around, their lineup is fearsome with or without Alex Rodriguez, whose hip problems might force him to miss his Dominican debut. With David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Jose Guillen, Robinson Cano and Miguel Tejada, the Dominicans are a potent mixture of speed and pop. And with arms such as Pedro Martinez, Ubaldo Jimenez, Edinson Volquez, Damaso Marte, Jose Arredondo, Tony Pena and Juan Cruz, they've got power and finesse.
Home team Puerto Rico won't go down without a fight, however, not with Major Leaguers on their side like Carlos Beltran, Alex Rios, Bernie Williams, Carlos Delgado and last year's NL Rookie of the Year, Geovany Soto.
The Netherlands and Panama round out the foursome, but odds are the Caribbean venue and built-in rivalry of the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans that has been alive for decades of winter ball will make the projected March 9 meeting between the two potential first-game winners a can't-miss matchup.
San Diego's PETCO Park will be the site for the second round for the four survivors of Pools A and B and what could very well end up being a rematch of the 2006 championship game between Japan and Cuba, but don't forget Korea's inspired play in this round three years ago, when that club went 3-0 to head to the semis.
On the other side of the country, at Dolphin Stadium in Miami, the United States will hope to strut its stuff in what could be a brutal pool that also features the Dominicans, Venezuelans and Puerto Ricans all basking in the tropical sun.
If those four teams make it to Miami, expect the best of non-stop baseball action, with the two teams that make it to the semifinals being anyone's guess. Either way, the Los Angeles games will be marked for greatness.
In other words, three years later, game on.