Well, I guess I’m officially a convert. Forget anything bad I ever said about the World Baseball Classic, I’m won over.
Now, look, I know I wasn’t all that critical of the tournament before, but I did suggest maybe it wasn’t as relevant now as it was when the idea was first proposed. But, honestly, forget that. Those are now all wasted words. In past years, I’ve watched bits and pieces of the WBC and been interested. But I’ve never been hooked like I am now, and it all really started with last night’s game.
I’d been paying closer attention to the tournament this year than I had the past two, mostly because of this blog and wanting something to write about. Maybe it’s that closer attention, maybe there’s something more to it. But, it seems like this time around, these games mean much more to the players than it has in the past. Honest-to-goodness brawls? Check. Big, on-field celebrations for moving on? Check. Heck, big, on-field celebrations for narrowly avoiding elimination? Check. Fans lustily cheering and booing as they would for a playoff game? Check. What is there not to love? The fact there are some spoilsports who didn’t want to join the national team? Forget them. If they don’t want to be there, then they don’t deserve to be there. There are still plenty of big name players on Team USA. And as the Lakers and formerly the Heat have shown us,* just throwing names together doesn’t make them a good team. You go with the guys who care, who will give it their all, and that’s who is here.
*And maybe past US National Baseball Teams, it seems like there were bigger names in previous years.
If you didn’t watch yesterday’s elimination game between the US and Canada, you missed out. There have been a lot of good games and nail-biters, but this seemed to be the game to watch if you really wanted to get hooked. The US team’s fate hung in the balance. Thanks to short pool play, the US would win the pool with a win or fall to last place with a loss. And finishing last in your pool means no automatic qualifier in the next tournament. Can you imagine a world where the United States isn’t automatically assumed to be one of the best baseball nations in the world? I couldn’t, and the thought of that being a possibility made my stomach turn.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to feel for Canada. They were a bit of the little engine that could in this game. That loss to Italy hurt and maybe didn’t make a ton of sense, but against the US, the Canadian team was made up of mostly minor league players and three big time hitters.* A bit of interesting side trivia. The Canadian line-up was almost entirely left-handed, most likely owing to the strong hockey background. Anyway, a bunch of minor-league or Nippon League pitchers going up against an all-star line up in the US, and for the most part, they delivered. The loss didn’t sting quite so bad for Canada, as they won’t have to requalify (sorry, Mexico), but I’m sure they wanted very badly to be moving on.
*Votto, Morneau, and Saunders, if you’re counting.
How close was this game? A hell of a lot closer than the final score, 9-4, would tell you. That won’t tell you that Canada led for most of the game, or the US seemed to be absolutely unable to cash in runs. But, as Dan Dakich likes to say, water finds its level. If you consistently get your lead off guys on, you will eventually be rewarded for it, and that’s what happened with the US. Canada just got themselves into too many jams, and finally the dam truly broke in the ninth. It was a valiant effort, and could well have reignited some interest in the majors in some guys that have been toiling in Japan or elsewhere.
Related to that, the announcers made an interesting comment that I’ve certainly hit on here before. It’s well past time to stop coddling pitchers. It seemed like nearly every pitcher that Canada threw out there besides Brewer John Axford and soon-to-be Pirate Jameson Taillon had spent some time in Japan where they rediscovered how to pitch. How do pitchers consistently have this revelation in Japan? And, furthermore, how does Japan have such a reputation for producing pitchers? In a stunning development, it turns out they make them pitch. A lot. There are pitch counts, sure. It’s just that the Japanese tend to look at pitch counts as pitch floors and not pitch ceilings. They also are dedicated to great mechanics, so you don’t wear yourself down by bad, repetitive motions. Over here, teams freak out and won’t draft a pitcher if they hear he does long toss. And American pitchers break down. If you can’t make the connection, you are beyond help.
Anyway, due to geography, the Japanese leg of the second round finishes up at six tomorrow morning with a rematch of Japan and the Netherlands.* Japan crushed the Dutch in their first meeting, 16-4. The Dutch responded by slipping by the Cubans for a second time, putting Cuba back to their island. This game is just for seeding, by my understanding. The winner of this game will play the runner up of the Miami leg of the second round and vice versa.
*Unlike my previous statement, the Netherlands are Curacao heavy. Which is just fine. That would be like people complaining that Shane Victorino is on the American team because he’s from Hawaii.
Getting started at a more reasonable one o’clock (in the afternoon!), the Miami portion starts off with the very surprising (but not very Italian) Italy team and the big expectation (but has always failed to live up to them to this point) Dominican team. Puerto Rico and the US will follow that up in a game that might be one of the last times Puerto Rico gets to field their own team. You know they want to get that W, like an overeager little brother smelling blood in the water.
And you know who’s going to be watching every pitch possible? This guy, and I’ve got the USA chant down pat for whenever it feels applicable.
As a bonus, here is my score sheet from last night.