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Expectations high in Pool 2

USA, Venezuela, Puerto Rico joined by surprising Dutch in Miami

Carlos Delgado and Puerto Rico will look to stay undefeated against Team USA. (Fernando Llano/AP)

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Team USA not only expected to visit Miami this weekend but has aspirations beyond just a few more games in South Florida. The World Baseball Classic clubs from Puerto Rico and Venezuela, both stocked amply with Major League talent, can say the same thing.

All three expected to be exactly where they were to be Friday, working out and preparing for Pool 2 of the second round at Dolphin Stadium, which begins with a Saturday doubleheader.

All three of those teams had Miami on their itinerary from the beginning.

The Netherlands, on the other hand, had Miami booked only on fully refundable tickets. There were no guarantees, and realistically not a lot of hope.

Yet the orange-topped Dutch will be right there alongside the international powerhouses and Classic favorites for the second round at Miami. After its double-Dutch number on the Dominicans in San Juan, The Netherlands enters Pool 2 with momentum and a growing group of fans of underdogs and clutch baseball in tow.

One catch: The U.S., Venezuela and Puerto Rico won't be surprised by The Netherlands in this round, and each proved worthy in the first round of pre-tournament predictions of prowess. Each demonstrated the chops that could earn a ticket to the final three-day weekend of games at Dodger Stadium, March 21-23.

But, as the Dutch proved, anything can happen in the World Baseball Classic.

Here's a peek at Pool 2:

Pool 2 opener: vs. Venezuela, Saturday, 1 p.m. ET.
'09 first round:
Second place, Pool D in San Juan
Beat Dominican Republic, 3-2
Lost to Puerto Rico, 3-1
Beat Dominican Republic, 2-1
Lost to Puerto Rico, 5-0
'06 result: 1-2, third place in Pool C
MLB-affiliated players: 12, including unsigned free-agent right-hander Sidney Ponson
Key players: Ponson set the tone with a strong start in the first upset of the D.R., and the additional Major League experience brought by Eugene Kingsale and Randall Simon showed in the key moments in the first round. First-time closer Leon Boyd and reliever Juan Carlos Sulburan also made first-round impressions.

With the possible exception of the finale against host Puerto Rico, The Netherlands was in every game in the first round -- holding off the D.R. in the first upset, flipping the game in extra innings in the second and giving Puerto Rico all it could handle in the first game.

Pitching was key for the Dutch in the first round, throwing strikes and keeping the ball in play. They'll need it to set a tone again, because the offense, while opportunistic, was the least productive overall in the first round among the 16-team field. Manager Rod Delmonico clearly has created an atmosphere that the players are prepared to take advantage of what comes to them, and that makes them dangerous.

Pool 2 opener: vs. United States, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET.
'09 first round:
First place, Pool D in San Juan
Beat Panama, 7-0
Beat The Netherlands, 3-1
Beat The Netherlands, 5-0
'06 result: 4-2, lost the Round 2 decider to Cuba, 4-3
MLB-affiliated players: 23, including unsigned free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez.
Key players: Rodriguez showed glimpses in the first round of his superstar past (and possible present), but the true stars of the day for Puerto Rico are first baseman Carlos Delgado, outfielders Carlos Beltran and Alex Rios and starter Javier Vazquez.

The week-long party in San Juan was practically unfair to the guests, with the home team holding so much talent and so much passion oozing from the stands. Still, there's no questioning that this club could have been dominant at any venue, as loaded as it is.

Catcher Yadier Molina came through with the only clutch hit Puerto Rico needed in the first round with his two-run double in the eighth inning of the first victory over The Netherlands. Rodriguez's monster game in the opener against Panama set the tone, and the complete roster followed through with its destiny to reach Miami.

Pool 2 opener: vs. Puerto Rico, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET.
'09 first round:
Second place, Pool C in Toronto
Beat Canada, 6-5
Beat Venezuela, 15-6
Lost to Venezuela, 5-3
'06 result: Eighth place, with 3-3 record, did not qualify for semifinals
MLB-affiliated players: 27
Key players: Starter Jake Peavy and shortstop Derek Jeter are back for a second tour of duty, but many are pointing to newcomers like second baseman Dustin Pedroia and outfielder Ryan Braun to give Team USA the ingredients needed to reach L.A.

The Americans started out by exorcising one demon by beating Canada, an early nemesis in what turned into a disappointing '06 run. They followed up with a romp against Venezuela, before dropping one to Venezuela with less riding on it than the first. All in all, it was a good trip to Toronto for Team USA.

Truly putting the past behind them will take advancing out of the Miami round, since last year's performance at Anaheim left them out of the final party in San Diego. The offense boasted a balanced attack in the first round, with Adam Dunn and Kevin Youkilis each homering twice, so a lot will ride on the pitching staff's ability to keep the tougher lineups like Puerto Rico's and Venezuela's at bay.

Pool 2 opener: vs. The Netherlands, Saturday, 1 p.m. ET.
'09 first round:
First place, Pool C in Toronto
Beat Italy, 7-0
Lost to U.S., 15-6
Beat Italy, 10-1
Beat U.S., 5-3
'06 result: Seventh place, with 3-3 record, did not qualify for semifinals
MLB-affiliated players: 22
Key players: Team Venezuela includes All-Stars like closer Francisco Rodriguez and sluggers Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Bobby Abreu, but their high-level talent and Major League experience runs deep.

The results were all over the place on the scoreboard -- a blowout win one game, a blowout loss the next, another blowout win -- but they wound up putting Venezuela in the right position: first place, winning that seed with the victory over the U.S. on Wednesday. That Team Venezuela took Pool C was not a shock, what with its power-packed roster.

And the deep offensive unit didn't disappoint, batting .347 (50-for-144) in its four Classic games. The pitching staff has a blend of youth and experience, with the likes of Felix Hernandez and Francisco Rodriguez commanding attention. This is a dangerous team.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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