The World Baseball Classic isn't perfect. The late starts on the West Coast aren't optimal, as fans on the East Coast or in Puerto Rico had to stay up past midnight to see the exciting finishes to the semifinal games. The games have been sloppy at times -- the Netherlands had two crucial baserunning mistakes in its loss to Puerto Rico, for example, and Japan had two defensive miscues that led to two United States runs in the rainy conditions Tuesday. What's more, purists weren't exactly writing baseball poetry about the rule that puts runners on first and second to start the 11th inning.
As always, however, the game ends up selling itself, and the games have been dramatic. Let's hope the championship game between the U.S. and undefeated Puerto Rico matches the level of excitement we've seen so far. Here are a few things to look for:
Seth Lugo, the man of the hour: The former 34th-round pick was born and grew up in Louisiana, went to college in Louisiana and pitches for the Mets, but he's now the pride of Puerto Rico, as he will face off against U.S. starter Marcus Stroman. Lugo got shelled in Triple-A last year but was pressed into service in the Mets' rotation, and he excelled with a 2.67 ERA in 64 innings while relying on a tight curveball that showcased the highest spin rate in the majors.
Lugo started against the U.S. in Puerto Rico's 6-5 win in the second round. He allowed five hits and three runs in 5 2/3 innings (Adam Jones and Buster Posey homered off him). Puerto Rico doesn't have the bullpen depth that the U.S. does, so there is more pressure on Lugo to pitch and pitch deeper into the game.
Will Edwin Diaz be available? Yes. After he threw two innings and 19 pitches on Monday (not including an intentional walk), there was concern that the Mariners wouldn't allow Diaz to pitch in the championship game because it's unusual for a closer to throw two innings in spring training, especially when you're as amped up as Diaz was, throwing 100 miles per hour. The Mariners -- and Puerto Rico -- did luck out when Diaz had to throw only four pitches in his second inning, thanks to a first-pitch, inning-ending double play. After Diaz reportedly asked to be made available, the Mariners relented.
"What he's going through right now should be a big, big benefit for him," Mariners manager Scott Servais told reporters Tuesday. "The only way to go through that is to experience it, and hopefully we'll benefit from that quite a bit down the road."
It seems unlikely, however, that Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez would extend Diaz past one inning.
Let's discuss Jim Leyland: In the USA's win over Japan, Leyland made the absolute most indefensible move of the tournament, creating a minor meltdown on Twitter and stirring up memories that Tigers fans had stashed in the deepest, darkest recesses of their minds. Of course, the move worked. Leading 2-1 in the eighth, he removed Mark Melancon with two on and two outs after just 11 pitches and brought in sidearmer Pat Neshek to face Japan's best hitter, Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh, who happens to bat left-handed. Neshek happened to allow a .646 slugging percentage against lefties last season, which means he basically turned the average left-handed batter into David Ortiz. Tsutsugoh flew out to right field.
In other words, there's no way of knowing how Leyland will handle the bullpen: In theory, every U.S. reliever should be available. I'm guessing that was part of Leyland's thinking: Don't allow any one reliever to throw too many pitches. Andrew Miller faced just three batters, though he did throw 17 pitches. Still, he should be ready to get two or three outs Wednesday. The one guy you might not see is Nate Jones, who pitched 1 1/3 innings on Tuesday.
The Puerto Rico lineup should be exclusively right-handed and switch-hitters, so it’s a better matchup for Stroman than if a left-hander had been slated to start, and Leyland's deep arsenal of right-handed relievers plays to Team USA's strength.
Will Nolan Arenado be in the U.S. lineup? Although Leyland hasn’t found many at-bats for Daniel Murphy or Paul Goldschmidt -- primarily sticking with Ian Kinsler at second base and Eric Hosmer at first -- he has stuck with Arenado in the cleanup spot. The Rockies' All-Star is just 3-for-26 in the tournament and went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Japan (he has had just one four-strikeout game in the majors). That gives him six K's in two games.
My guess is Arenado still starts, as Alex Bregman has just four at-bats in the tournament. Leyland could give Murphy the start at third base, but he might not want to sacrifice defense, and reacting to such a small sample of plate appearances is a little silly. Murphy could get the start at DH to get another left-handed bat in the lineup.
How does Puerto Rico bridge the gap to Diaz? Rodriguez keeps pulling the right strings, including a quick hook with Jorge Lopez in the semifinal game in favor of veteran lefty Hector Santiago, who started 33 games in the majors last season but has pitched out of the bullpen in this series. However, Santiago threw 63 pitches, so he isn't eligible to pitch in the final. Obviously, the best-case scenario is for Lugo to get at least six innings out of his 95-pitch limit, but if he struggles, look for Twins right-hander Jose Berrios to be the long man out of the pen.
The genius of Yadier Molina, future Hall of Famer: He's throwing runners out, blocking the plate, coaxing good work out of a relatively inexperienced pitching staff, dropping down bunts, keeping the Gatorade dispenser full and generally serving as the spiritual leader of Team Puerto Rico. Molina, by the way, is signed only through 2017 (with a mutual option for 2018 that Molina is certain to reject), and talk of a new contract has been a controversy of late in St. Louis, especially after older brother Bengie went on MLB Network Radio a few days ago and lamented that no extension has been signed. Molina turns 35 in July, and though it's difficult to imagine him leaving the Cardinals, the Cards once let Albert Pujols walk away.
LOS ANGELES -- The United States earned a trip to its first World Baseball Classic championship game when the host team held off Japan 2-1 in Tuesday’s semifinal.
The United States will face Puerto Rico in the winner-take-all final on Wednesday at Dodger Stadium.
In three previous WBC tournaments, the United States had advanced to the semifinals just once, when it lost to Japan 9-4 in 2009. Revenge proved difficult to achieve Tuesday, but Team USA prevailed, thanks to some unexpected defensive miscues from Team Japan.
Many members of Team USA stressed the need for a well-played game against the fundamentally sound Japan team. But a fourth-inning error from Japan second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi led to the United States’ first run on an Andrew McCutchen single.
With drums and horns serenading Japan’s every move on offense, Kikuchi redeemed himself in the sixth inning with a game-tying home run off reliever Nate Jones.
The United States took the lead in the eighth inning on an Adam Jones groundout that was bobbled by Japan third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda. The brief misplay allowed Brandon Crawford to score from third base. Crawford had singled and moved to third on an Ian Kinsler double.
“It means a heckuva lot,” McCutchen said when asked if never having made the title game had been a burden on Team USA. “We have a great group of guys on this team who have dedicated this time to be able to try and win some ballgames. A sacrifice had to be made. There are no egos when that door opens, and that is what is good about this team.
“Everybody is a superstar, everybody is a three-hole hitter, but somebody has to hit seventh, somebody has to hit eighth. There are no egos, even with the pitching. That is first and foremost what has allowed this team to get this far.”
In his first start of the WBC, Team USA’s Tanner Roark held Japan scoreless over the first four innings and gave up just two hits. Despite the game's being played in Los Angeles, the United States was the visiting team, with Luke Gregerson closing out the victory in the bottom of the ninth inning.
As tough as Japan was to overcome Tuesday, the United States will face another major challenger in Puerto Rico, a team that is 7-0 in this tournament. Puerto Rico defeated the United States 6-5 in a second-round game Friday in San Diego.
The United States is scheduled to send right-hander Marcus Stroman to the mound in the title game. Stroman has a 3.86 ERA in his two previous WBC starts. Puerto Rico will counter with Seth Lugo, who has won both of his starts in this tournament. Lugo has allowed just three runs in 11 WBC innings.
Three things to know:
1. United States starter Roark was electric Tuesday, even though he had pitched just 1 1/3 innings in the WBC -- in a relief appearance. The Washington Nationals pitcher was in sync against Japan. He said he prepared himself with a couple of bullpen sessions since his Team USA outing 10 days prior.
Roark gave up just two hits in his four innings of work, and he allowed a walk and recorded a strikeout. He kept Japan off-balance for most of his 48 pitches, as nearly all of his outing came during light rain.
Why just 48 pitches, when 95 is the limit for this round? Roark admitted he was on a 50-pitch limit.
“I haven’t faced live hitters in nine days or so, so they brought the pitch count down a little bit,” he said. “I felt good to stay out there, but you know … yeah.”
The outing continued a strong run of starting pitching for Team USA. In seven games of the tournament, the starters have combined for a 1.50 ERA.
Roark even managed some self-preservation, as a hard line drive from Japan’s Shogo Akiyama in the third inning appeared to connect perfectly with Roark’s glove.
2. The pitchers’ duel Tuesday was nothing like the previous time Team Japan and Team USA met in a WBC semifinal. In a game at Dodger Stadium on March 22, 2009, the teams not only combined for 13 runs but also made four errors, with the United States making three.
Jimmy Rollins had four hits for the United States that day, and Mark DeRosa drove in two runs. Brian Roberts hit a home run.
Japan pounded out 10 hits in earning a berth in the championship game. It went on to win the WBC title with a victory over South Korea the next day. Ichiro Suzuki, Norichika Aoki, Kosuke Fukudome, Kenji Johjima and Munenori Kawasaki played for Team Japan in that semifinal against the United States. Daisuke Matsuzaka was the starting pitcher, and Yu Darvish pitched one inning of relief.
3. Jonathan Lucroy is expected to be the starting catcher for the United States on Wednesday -- not Buster Posey. The move surprised some, considering Posey has helped the San Francisco Giants to three World Series titles and Wednesday’s game is for a championship, after all.
But U.S. manager Jim Leyland always planned to rotate his catchers, and Wednesday is Lucroy’s turn to start behind the plate. Posey started in the semifinal Tuesday.
“I would really feel bad if somebody thought we weren't trying to win because we were catching Jonathan Lucroy,” Leyland said. “This guy's a good player. He's a real good player. If there's anybody in the United States right now that doesn't think we're trying to win this thing and putting what we feel is the best team out there each and every day, then they really haven't been following it like they should.”
“As far as the catching, that's a no-brainer,” Leyland said. “I would like to think that anybody that's a baseball fan would understand the way we're handling the catching. We think it's the proper way to do it.”
I am not an expert on Japanese baseball, but after watching most of the World Baseball Classic games, conducting a little research and reading coverage on the internet -- including English-language coverage from Japan -- I’ve come to the following conclusions:
1. I have no idea whether this Japanese team is as strong as the teams that won the first two WBCs in 2006 and 2009.
2. This team absolutely can win its next two games and go undefeated in the tournament, as the Dominican Republic did in 2013.
Japan went 6-0 in the first two rounds, joining those Dominicans and the 2006 South Korea squad as the only teams to enter the semifinals without a loss. That’s impressive, but Japan played in two weak groups, with a Cuba team that has hemorrhaged talent to the major leagues in recent years, and caught a break when South Korea was knocked out in the first round. How good is Japan as we look to Tuesday’s semifinal game against the United States at Dodger Stadium? Team Japan keeps winning, but other than Nori Aoki, we can’t name a player on the team.
My hunch is that this team isn’t as good, based on a few factors:
Aoki has been hitting third: No offense, but Aoki is only a fringe MLB regular at this point, hitting .283/.349/.388 for the Seattle Mariners last season. If Aoki is hitting third, what does that say about the rest of the lineup? The 2006 and 2009 lineups featured an in-his-prime Ichiro Suzuki, former Chicago Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, former Tampa Bay Rays infielder Akinori Iwamura and a 20-something Aoki instead of a 35-year-old Aoki. The 2009 lineup added then-Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima. All those players had some level of success in the U.S. -- not that playing in the U.S. is the sole indicator of ability, but it does give us a better read on those players.
Is there an ace? The 2006 team featured Daisuke Matsuzaka, who allowed one run in four innings in the championship game against Cuba, a performance that helped lead to a big contract with the Boston Red Sox the following season. Matsuzaka’s career in the U.S. is viewed as a disappointment, but that’s a little unfair. Although he was infuriating to watch as he nibbled at the corners, he went 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA in 2007 (worth 4.1 WAR) and helped the Red Sox win the World Series. He followed that with an 18-3 record and 2.90 ERA in 2008 (5.3 WAR). Matsuzaka got hurt in 2009 -- after throwing 4 2/3 innings to help knock out the U.S. in the semifinals of the WBC -- and was never really healthy again. Koji Uehara, then a star starter in Japan, had pitched seven scoreless innings to beat South Korea in the 2006 semis.
Hisashi Iwakuma started the 2009 final against South Korea, allowing two runs in 7 2/3 innings, but that team also boasted a young Yu Darvish as its closer, and Masahiro Tanaka pitched an inning in relief against the U.S. With Matsuzaka, Darvish and Tanaka, the team had three pitchers who could match the best major leaguers in velocity -- again, not that velocity is everything, as Uehara and Iwakuma have had plenty of success in the U.S. while living off mediocre fastballs and great splitters.
Quality of competition: In the first round, Japan beat Cuba, Australia and China. In the second round, Japan beat the Netherlands, Israel and Cuba. That isn't exactly murderers' row. It took Japan 11 innings, with help from the extra-inning rule, to beat the Netherlands, the one team with some legit major league talent on the roster, and Cuba scored 11 runs in its two losses to Japan. This team simply hasn't faced a team that comes close to the depth of the U.S. lineup and pitching staff.
OK, enough with the negativity. Here are a few reasons Japan can win this thing:
Tomoyuki Sugano: Regarded as the second-best pitcher in Japan (behind Shohei Otani) after posting a 2.01 ERA for Yomiuri and striking out 189 batters in 183 1/3 innings, Sugano will start against the U.S. Although he struggled against Cuba in the second round, allowing seven hits and four runs in four innings, his track record in Japan is strong. The 27-year-old right-hander once clocked in the mid-90s, but he now sits at 91 with his fastball and reportedly throws seven pitches, including the proverbial forkball/splitter that so many Japanese pitchers possess.
Bullpen depth: The pen has allowed eight runs in 30 innings, with right-handers Ryo Akiyoshi, Yoshihisa Hirano and Kazuhisa Makita appearing in five of the six games so far. Manager Hiroki Kokubo will undoubtedly have a quick hook on Sugano if he isn't sharp and can mix and match out of the pen. He has submariners, sidearmers, junkballers, fireballers and everything in between to give the U.S. a variety of looks.
Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh is the big slugger in the lineup: Tsutsugoh is coming off a 44-homer season in the Nippon League, and his major league translation, courtesy of Dan Szymborski, is .284/.349/.498. He has been playing left field for Japan, though he might come out for defense late in the game. While I have no doubt that he can hit in the U.S., he looks very slow and might not have a position (he came up as a third baseman), so he probably isn’t a strong bet to come to MLB at some point. He does, however, have three home runs in this tournament.
Tetsuto Yamada at second base: Yamada is coming off a season in which he hit .304 with 38 home runs, 30 steals in 32 attempts and 97 walks in Japan. He has been DHing and leading off, with Ryosuke Kikuchi playing second and batting second. If Yamada can play second base -- he made just four errors in 141 games last season -- he looks like a player who could cross the Pacific with great success.
In Japan, the WBC is almost viewed as a national holiday. If Japan can win for the third time in four tournaments, you know they’ll be celebrating in the streets of Tokyo.
LOS ANGELES -- When Adam Jones reached behind the wall at San Diego’s Petco Park this past weekend to rob a late-inning home run, he might have brought back more than a baseball.
It is likely that the Team USA center fielder hauled in some eyeballs to the final games of the World Baseball Classic, as the semifinals of the tournament continue Tuesday with the United States facing Japan.
The United States’ victory over the Dominican Republic is what got the team to Los Angeles for a winner-take-all trip to the finals, and Jones’ catch in Saturday’s deciding pool game also gave the tournament a look-what-you-have-been-missing moment.
It came as no surprise that on Monday, Jones was still being asked about his seventh-inning robbery of Baltimore Orioles teammate Manny Machado. With the U.S. clinging to a two-run lead, Jones broke back on Machado’s drive and appeared to get half of his body above the low center-field wall to make the memorable catch.
“I play 27 outs. It's just how I play,” Jones said when asked to relive the moment. “It doesn't matter how I'm feeling -- I'm going to give it my all until that game is over. I've seen it all over SportsCenter and all the various outlets of the catch, and it was great. But that was last game. Now I need to do something to help my team win against Japan.”
One more victory would give the United States a berth in the WBC championship game against Puerto Rico, which defeated the Netherlands on Monday in the other semifinal.
The United States has never advanced beyond the semifinals in the previous three WBC tournaments and has played in the semifinals just once, in 2009, when Team USA lost to Japan. Meanwhile, the U.S. will be facing a Japanese team that won the first two WBC tournaments, in 2006 and 2009.
Japan’s roster has just one major leaguer, Nori Aoki, so the expectations for what the United States will see Tuesday are about style more than name recognition.
“What I know about them is that they play a very clean game -- fundamentally sound,” Jones said. “They move runners over. They hit behind the runners. They bunt. They don't make many errors fielding. They are a very, very fundamentally sound team.”
Team USA first baseman Eric Hosmer was teammates with Aoki in Kansas City, but that’s about where the familiarity with Team Japan ends.
“I think it's a team that's going to capitalize on another team making mistakes,” Hosmer said. “So we just want to stick to playing our game. We know the type of game that we can play, and we feel good when we play those games, and we feel that we'll be successful on most nights if we can execute the things we're going to try to execute. So that's basically what we're going to try to stick to.”
U.S. manager Jim Leyland will send Washington Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark to the mound in Tuesday’s win-or-go-home game. Roark has just one appearance in the WBC so far, and it was not especially pretty. He gave up three runs on three hits over 1 1/3 relief innings in a March 11 defeat to the Dominican Republic.
When he last started a game that mattered, Roark pitched in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, in which the Nationals defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Nationals eventually lost the series.
The right-hander was comfortable calling Tuesday’s start the biggest of his baseball career.
“So far, yes, I'd say so, with the single-elimination and everything,” he said. “Go out there, and leave it all out on the field.”
With barely more than an inning of work in the past two weeks, Roark said he has tried to stay sharp with throwing sessions in the bullpen. He added that he has been staying mentally focused on games, “just watching how the hitters react and just watching and trying to learn as much as I can from all these guys.”
Roark will pitch opposite Japan’s Tomoyuki Sugano, who has a 5.40 ERA in two starts. The right-hander gave up one run in 4 1/3 innings as Japan won a first-round decision against Cuba. Then he gave up four runs in four innings against the same Cuban team in the second round. He offered his feelings heading into Tuesday’s elimination game:
“Really, it's finally here. That's how I feel,” Sugano said through an interpreter. “[On Tuesday], for sure we'll win and advance to the final. That's how I feel.”
If there is anything Team USA knows about Sugano, it's that he is confident.
“Well, obviously, I don't know a whole lot about him, to be honest with you,” Leyland said. “I saw him pitch on television when I was watching this event. You know, he's obviously very good. He wouldn't be pitching this game if he wasn't.
“The thing that stuck out in my mind was he hasn't walked anybody. He's obviously got very good control. We're getting some information from the people that have seen him. And he's obviously a very good pitcher, or he wouldn't be representing Japan.”
If Team USA is worried about facing an unknown in such a key game, it was not evident at their Monday workout. During batting practice, Jones shouted a request from the field for some hip-hop music. About a minute later, the playlist was changed. Jones continues to go to great lengths to get what he and Team USA need.
“I've been to the ALCS, and those were obviously my biggest games because obviously the magnitude and what it meant for MLB,” Jones said. “But aside from MLB and the WBC, this is the most important game that we're playing outside of our culture of our own team. So it's special.
“I'm glad that we've garnered more attention as the USA team, and we've got more people on our back now, more people on board with the WBC," Jones said. "A lot of people are saying this is good and bad for the league, but I think when USA is still in it, I think people jump on board, and I think that we can do something special.”
Puerto Rico, the tournament’s runner-up four years ago, advanced to the title game again with a dramatic 4-3 victory in 11 innings over the Netherlands on Monday in a game that was decided on the tournament’s extra-inning rule.
Starting in the 11th inning, both teams are allowed a runner on first and second base to begin the inning. The Netherlands blew its chance after a sacrifice bunt and a double-play grounder by Curt Smith. Puerto Rico also tried a sacrifice bunt but won the game when Eddie Rosario followed with a sacrifice fly to center field, which scored Carlos Correa.
Puerto Rico will face the winner of Tuesday’s semifinal game between the United States and Japan.
In the 2013 tournament, Puerto Rico ran into the buzz saw that was a Dominican Republic team that ended up going 8-0 en route to the title. Now Puerto Rico can do the same thing if it takes Wednesday’s title game.
"The aspect that highlights this team compared to 2013 truly is the talent," Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "We have a bank of talent that is wider than in 2013. There are more options. Not only the ones in the lineup, but also we have more options in our reserve players, and that is a huge difference."
The tone was set by Puerto Rico catcher Yadier Molina, who threw out two baserunners in the first inning. The Netherlands took an early 2-0 lead in the first on a home run from Wladimir Balentin, but Puerto Rico came back to tie it on a two-run home run by Correa.
"The first thing we want to do when we're so intense is just to calm down, take control of the emotions and have the abilities take care of the game. In my case, I didn't feel any pressure," Correa said. "I just stood at third base and waited. When I'm batting, I didn't feel any pressure. Simply, when I feel that I'm all excited, I tried to calm down, breathe deep, and concentrate on what we're doing. This is something that we rehearse every day. So we will be able to do it well at the end."
In front of a mostly pro-Puerto Rico crowd of 24,865, both bullpens put on a classic duel. Before the deciding 11th inning, neither team had scored since the fifth, when the Netherlands tied it 3-3.
Three key things to know:
1. Puerto Rico’s masked wrecking ball: The defense of St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is no secret, yet it still seemed to catch the Netherlands off-guard Monday. Not only was Andrelton Simmons picked off second base by Molina, but also Jurickson Profar was thrown out by Molina when he wasn’t paying attention at first base following a base hit.
"For me, that was the game," Rodriguez said. "That first inning that Yadi Molina did what he did, for me, that was the game. Then again, Yadier Molina came to play."
It looked like the Netherlands was going to take the lead on a fifth-inning double by Shawn Zarraga, but Molina grabbed a quick relay throw from Javier Baez and tagged Jonathan Schoop out at the plate. The Netherlands never scored again.
Don’t blame the Netherlands players for not knowing what they were up against. Simmons, Profar and Schoop are all major leaguers and should have known better, yet Molina still managed to make his mark.
It has been an impressive tournament for Molina, who has been the heart and soul of an undefeated Puerto Rico team. He was MVP of Pool F, the grouping the team steamrollered to advance to Monday’s semifinal. Not only has Molina’s defense been plus, but also he batted .353 in the first six games, with two home runs and six RBIs.
2. Relieved to be in the final: Puerto Rico starter Jorge Lopez was shaky at the outset and was pulled after 2 2/3 innings, even though his team had the lead. It was the bullpen that saved the day, starting with left-hander Hector Santiago.
The Los Angeles Angels product backed Lopez with a solid 3 1/3 innings, giving up just one run while throwing 60 pitches. Fellow left-hander Alex Claudio later delivered 1 1/3 innings of scoreless baseball. Joseph Colon and Edwin Diaz also delivered scoreless outings for Puerto Rico, with more than an inning of work each.
Diaz was huge with a perfect 10th inning, then getting shutting down the Netherlands in the 11th even with two free runners aboard. He hopes his parent club, the Seattle Mariners, will clear him to pitch again in Wednesday’s title game.
"I am ready to throw on Wednesday," Diaz said. "I'm going to talk to my organization to see because it's the last game. And I think that I have a day of rest because we're off. So I'm going to try to talk to the organization and see if they give me the break, because they have worked with me fine, and I hope they say yes."
There was little margin for error for the Puerto Rico relievers. If the Netherlands took a late lead, the team had Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen looming in the bullpen. Jansen got his chance to pitch with a dominating 10th inning, but the game was only tied at the time.
3. Bashing Balentin: There is no telling where the Netherlands would have been without Balentin, but reaching the semifinals of the WBC would have been unlikely. He hit his fourth home run of the tournament in the first inning and showed off a pronounced bat flip to go with the blast.
He added a double off the top of the wall in the fifth inning and scored the run that tied the game 3-3. After a seventh-inning single, Balentin had delivered 16 hits for his club in seven games.
He also got into an on-field dispute with Puerto Rico reliever Diaz. That emptied both benches, but there was no further incident, and Diaz followed by striking out Balentin.
All that offensive firepower was of no surprise to Balentin's regular team, the Yakult Swallows of the Japan Central League. In fact, Balentin hit a Nippon Professional Baseball-record 60 home runs in 2013, breaking the previous mark of 55. He has hit 31 home runs in four other seasons with Yakult.
SAN DIEGO -- It's not as if Brad Pitt, Chris Hemsworth or Robert Redford are on the roster, but there is a lot of blond hair in the Puerto Rico dugout.
While the Dominican Republic has excelled in the past two World Baseball Classics with the help of "Plantain Power," Puerto Rico has boosted its own performance this tournament with Blond Bonding. The players have done so by dyeing their hair blond, a move that has also caught on with many of their fans.
"What started as a joke has become a national thing," Puerto Rico's Enrique Hernandez said. "There is a big part of the island dyeing their hair, believe it or not. One of my mom's good friend's sister went to the pharmacy to dye her hair but there was no hair color or bleach to be found in the pharmacy. That tells you how much everybody is believing in this.
"For us, it started as a joke to show how much we are committed to each other. Now, the whole island doing it means a lot. And we can definitely feel the spirit they're showing."
Puerto Rico infielders Javier Baez and Francisco Lindor had dyed their hair blond before the WBC. After catcher Yadier Molina saw their hair when the team gathered in Arizona to train for the tournament, he encouraged everyone to dye theirs as well. Pretty soon, just about everyone did.
"I think it's awesome. It shows the unity we have as a team," infielder Mike Aviles said. "It wasn't something we did just to do, it was like, 'We're going to do something together for brotherhood.' ... When you have a team like that, it shows the solidarity with everybody. It shows that unity, that brotherhood, and that's what we're all about.
"It's to the point where people in Puerto Rico, in Little League and things like that, they're dyeing their hair because they want to show, 'We're with you guys. We can't be there but we're with you guys.' It just shows how a small little island can come together and do something big."
Some players dyed all their hair blond along with their beards, while others just did certain areas. The dyed hair looks good on some players, but it makes Carlos Beltran look so much older than his 39 years that he has been called Santa Claus. "As long as Santa Claus continues to hit, I'm OK with that," Beltran said.
Hernandez said how the dye looks doesn't matter.
"It is what it is. We're not going for looks," he said. "This is a team thing. So who cares if we look good or not? We're just trying to win some ballgames."
And they have. Puerto Rico has won all six games it has played in this WBC so far, advancing to the championship round in Los Angeles this week.
Asked whether he would dye his hair if Puerto Rico wins the WBC, manager Edwin Rodriguez said he would do so before then.
"I have to do it," he said. "There's so much pressure from the players, I have to do it."
The issue for Rodriguez is that he doesn't have any hair on his head. But perhaps he can find an alternative, as coach Carlos Delgado did.
"I've got no hair so I had to dye my goatee," Delgado said.
The hair-dyeing wasn't the first thing that brought the Puerto Rican team together, though. Rather, Hernandez said it was when Molina gathered everyone's cell phone numbers during the winter and had the team communicate via WhatsApp, a social messaging app.
"We all started chatting and sending jokes and making fun of each other. Because that's what we do in Puerto Rico," Hernandez said. "Not all of us knew each other, but when we got to Phoenix [for training] we felt like we all knew each other for our whole lives.
"We're not just playing good baseball because we're a good team. We're playing well because we all get along and have a real chemistry."
Hernandez said that he might retouch his hair for Opening Day if he makes the Los Angeles Dodgers' roster, though he said he will not add any blue to the coloring.
So what can other countries' players do with their hair to improve their competitive odds?
"That's a good question," Aviles said. "They can't do blond because that's what we've got. They'll have to come up with something different. But it's definitely fun and cool."
LOS ANGELES -- The Netherlands could be the signature team of this World Baseball Classic, thanks to a roster built of multiple ethnicities with myriad languages spoken in its clubhouse.
Here is one way to represent the team’s ability to bridge those cultures: One teammate from Curacao and another of Dutch ancestry recently bought out an American fast-food joint in South Korea to supply the postgame spread for everybody on the team.
The Popeyes Louisiana Chicken location in Seoul was apparently closed for two days before it could restock its supply after Didi Gregorius and Rick Van den Hurk helped fuel their club at the start of a run that ultimately led to a berth in Monday’s WBC semifinals.
The Netherlands will face undefeated Puerto Rico on Monday at Dodger Stadium, with a ticket to Wednesday’s WBC championship game on the line. The other semifinal, which is Tuesday night, will match Japan against the United States.
“We know now these guys are ready for the challenge,” Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens said. “We have our pitching together. You know, we're ready to go.”
What the Netherlands is not -- at least not anymore -- is an extreme underdog story. That came in previous WBCs, when the team, largely comprising players from Holland, along with some from Curacao and Aruba, defied the odds.
In the 2009 tournament, the Netherlands pulled off two legendary upsets against the Dominican Republic, the first of which was aided by a strong-armed catcher named Kenley Jansen, who threw out speedy Willy Taveras trying to steal third base in the ninth inning. By the time the second upset of the Dominican Republic was completed a few days later, the secret of the club had been revealed.
In 2013, the Netherlands took things a step further, earning a spot in the semifinals, this time with Jansen as a relief pitcher. But the Dominican Republic got its revenge and went on to win a title.
Now, the Netherlands will get another crack at making it to a WBC final backed by position players who come mostly from former Dutch colonies in the southern Caribbean, as well as a number of pitchers who are of Dutch descent.
There are as many as five languages spoken in the clubhouse at any one time, with the mix brought together by Meulens, the San Francisco Giants' hitting coach who has been part of three World Series titles in the past seven years.
One of the best position players Holland has ever produced, Stijn van der Meer, is nowhere near breaking through at shortstop in this group, and he's realistic about his place on the club's depth chart.
“I knew what I was signing up for," he said. "I mean, Didi and Boagerts are amazed by things that Simmons can do at short, so we are all understanding of our roles."
Gregorius has helped the team as the designated hitter. Boagerts has played third base. Jurickson Profar has moved to center field to alleviate the infield logjam. Nobody complains.
“By the way, they haven’t made any errors,” Meulens said, gushing about his roster of players willing to go wherever they are needed. “None of them.”
Boagerts lets out a laugh when asked about players willing to drop their egos and do what is best for the team.
“I mean, you could put any one of us at short, but obviously, honestly, Simmons is the best, so he has to play there,” Boagerts said. “Playing third base, I played there my first year [at the WBC], so that wasn't something new to me this year because I've done it before. But you're not going to take Simmons' spot at shortstop.”
This shortstop battle is nothing new. Gregorius and Simmons have been playing together since they were six. Boagerts was a few years younger, so he didn’t join the group until he was around 12. They play with the trust of siblings. They act like brothers.
“Like any of the guys that play infield, you can put them at short, and they'll do the job,” Simmons said. “Hensley put me there for most of the games, and I'm happy with that. But, I mean, it shows the versatility of the other guys too to be able to adjust and go to another position and still do a great job. So we've got a lot of infield talent. I mean, you can pick your poison. Any other guy can stand in there and do the same job.”
The trust of the position players has permeated the roster.
“[Meulens] has done a great job of recruiting these kids to have the spirit of the country in mind, most of them from Curacao, Holland, Aruba, to join together and get to where we’re at,” Netherlands pitching coach and Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven said. “It’s the players and what we have done on the field that has gotten us here, but the leadership of ‘Bam-Bam’ has shown in this tournament.”
“Bam-Bam,” is Meulens’ nickname, of course, a moniker that apparently was both a “Flintstones” reference and a way to describe his power ability as a youngster. Meulens was the first major leaguer from Curacao and can further make his own mark on the game this week.
“Hensley is very important and is doing an excellent job of managing the team,” said Bart Volkerijk, the president of the Royal Dutch Baseball and Softball Federation. “He has the feeling about what it is like to both play and coach at the highest level, and that is something we need.”
Helping Meulens’ decision-making this week will be the ability to call Jansen from the bullpen. The Dodgers’ closer said he was not ready to join the Netherlands’ team as it played in the Far East for the first two rounds of the tournament, but he is ready to contribute now.
“This team is one, it’s a family, and everybody is together,” Jansen said shortly before joining his first workout with his national team Sunday. “Everybody is loving being here right now. Hensley, seeing what he did with the Giants and seeing how they became a dynasty over there in the Bay Area, with him as the batting coach, he has a lot of experience doing this, and it’s great to have him here.”
The Netherlands will face a stern test Monday against a red-hot Puerto Rico team, but as it learned in 2009, nobody is unbeatable. It is a team made up of players from varying backgrounds, and it could, in fact, have an entire continent of support.
“We are from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but in the meanwhile, we have noticed that it is important to be from Europe and get that [baseball] message all over Europe,” Volkerijk said. “It gives kids who are Czech or in France or in Spain a perspective of getting to the highest level of sports because that’s what you do it for. To play sports is healthy, but kids have ambition to go as far as possible, and we give a perspective of playing this game at the highest level.”
The World Baseball Classic has had more thrills and plot twists than Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway opening an envelope at the Academy Awards. Winners have become losers, losers have become winners, and the unexpected has become expected.
No more round-robin pool play. We’ve reached the semifinals, with three games in three days at Dodger Stadium. Puerto Rico defeated the Netherlands to reach Wednesday's championship game. The United States plays unbeaten Japan on Tuesday for the other spot in the title clash (all games at 9 p.m. ET on MLB Network, with ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN providing Spanish-language coverage). If only we could coax Vin Scully out of retirement to call a few innings.
Here’s a viewer’s guide to what to watch:
So explain those rules again. Now that we’re out of pool play, we don’t have to worry about the complicated tiebreaking process. There are, however, a few rules to be aware of:
1. Pitchers are now allowed to throw a maximum of 95 pitches, up from 80 in the previous round. If a pitcher throws at least 30 pitches, he must sit a day, so this could come into play in the U.S.-Japan game, without a day off before the championship.
2. Starting in the 11th inning, the team at bat will have runners on first and second base to start the inning.
3. Instant replay will be used as it is in MLB, except there is no managerial challenge available.
How is Puerto Rico unbeaten? They’ve been the most impressive team in the tournament, outscoring their opponents 55-19, including two blowouts over Venezuela and 3-1 and 6-5 wins over the Dominican Republic and U.S., respectively, in the second round before outlasting Netherlands in extra innings. Carlos Correa has led the offense with 3 home runs, 9 RBIs and a .400 average, while Carlos Beltran is hitting .476 and Francisco Lindor .435 with a couple of home runs.
The surprise has been a pitching staff that, on paper, lacked the depth, especially in the bullpen, of the U.S. or D.R., but manager Edwin Rodriguez has mixed up his starting pitchers and deftly managed the relievers. Mariners closer Edwin Diaz gives the staff a legitimate MLB closer as the ninth-inning guy.
How is Japan 6-0? Let’s be honest: Japan faced a much easier road to the semifinals, especially with Korea getting knocked out in the first round. The Cuban team was much weaker than past editions, so that left Japan with only one reasonably tough opponent in six games, and it beat the Netherlands in 11 innings, taking advantage of the two-baserunner extra-inning rule to score two runs.
That doesn’t mean the Japanese aren’t a threat to win their third WBC in four tournaments. They’ve hit 10 home runs in their six games, although let’s see if that power translates from the friendlier confines of the Tokyo Dome to Dodger Stadium. Without a hard-throwing ace like Daisuke Matsuzaka or Yu Darvish to rely upon, as the team did in 2006 and 2009, manager Hiroki Kokubo has turned to his bullpen. Ryo Akiyoshi, Kazuhisa Makita and Yoshihisa Hirano each have appeared in five games, with Makita picking up a win and two saves. A former starter for Seibu, Makita transferred to the bullpen in 2016 and recorded a 1.60 ERA, although he wasn’t the team’s closer.
How does the U.S. shape up? The most difficult thing for manager Jim Leyland is outlining a pitching strategy. Tanner Roark will start against Japan, while Marcus Stroman is lined up to get the ball if the U.S. reaches the final. Roark has pitched just once in the tournament, on March 11 against the D.R., and struggled with his command, allowing three runs and two walks in 1 1/3 innings. Stroman gave up six hits to start the game against Puerto Rico in the second round, although to be fair, a few of those were seeing-eye singles, and he settled down after that.
Roark, who had a 2.83 ERA for the Nationals in 2016, is certainly a fine starter, although the decision to start him over Chris Archer is odd, considering Archer had expected to return to the squad. Archer even pitched in a minor-league game Thursday to stay on schedule to pitch in the championship round. Instead, he was told to remain with the Rays and will start Wednesday in the Grapefruit League.
Perhaps Leyland felt a need to give Roark some work. Nationals manager Dusty Baker was upset when he woke up Sunday morning and learned that Roark hadn’t pitched in Saturday’s game, after being told Roark would be used over the weekend. Baker also was upset that Daniel Murphy hasn’t played much, with just six at-bats in six games.
The U.S. did call up Mark Melancon from its pitching pool for more bullpen depth. Without a day off between the semifinals and final, the likelihood is that Leyland wants to avoid using any of his relievers on back-to-back days, although since we’re deeper into spring training now, I wouldn’t rule out that possibility -- after all, everyone still wants to win, and there’s no reason to hold, say, Andrew Miller back if he throws 15 pitches in a semifinal victory.
Give me a player to watch on each remaining team. OK, let’s do it.
Puerto Rico: You can’t ignore Correa, who also has played an excellent third base, but Mets right-hander Seth Lugo is on schedule to start the championship game and could be the most important player on the roster. He started the Friday win over the U.S., allowing three runs in 5 2/3 innings, giving up home runs to Buster Posey and Adam Jones.
Japan: Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh. The 25-year-old left-handed slugger led Japan’s Pacific League with 44 home runs and has three home runs in the WBC. You have to think we’ll see Miller face him at some point.
United States: Eric Hosmer. It’s been a bit of surprise that Hosmer has basically become the first baseman over Paul Goldschmidt, which also has limited Murphy’s playing time when Goldschmidt is the DH, but he has rewarded Leyland’s confidence with a .381 average and no strikeouts in 21 at-bats.
SAN DIEGO -- United States ballplayers and Major League Baseball have received a fair amount of grief for their lack of interest in the World Baseball Classic: That some of the greatest U.S. players such as Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw declined to participate. That teams don't really want many players participating in it, either. That U.S. fans have much less interest compared to those from other countries such as the Dominican Republic and Japan.
And that despite baseball being America's national pastime, the U.S. had advanced to the championship round in only one previous WBC, in which it lost to Japan in a semifinal game.
Team USA, however, shot down that criticism Saturday night in impressive fashion.
Playing the Dominican Republic, the reigning WBC champion against which Team USA squandered a 5-0 lead in a loss last week in Miami, the Americans showed they can play with intensity as well. Despite falling behind 2-0 in the first inning and nearly giving up even more runs the next inning when the Dominican Republic put runners on second and third with nobody out, the U.S. rallied with an inspired effort to win 6-3 and reach the final round of the WBC at Dodger Stadium this coming week.
The game drew a sellout crowd of 43,002 fans at Petco Park, the majority of them chanting "USA! USA!" when the Americans won. The U.S. players, meanwhile, slapped hands and exchanged high-fives like they have after many other victories, because that is the way they go about things and they know they still have more games to win.
"Like Adam Jones said, some of the teams show maybe physically a little more passion sometimes than we do, but don't get that confused with really not being into it and really not caring," manager Jim Leyland said. "It was a wonderful feeling. We're going to the finals. We beat a great team. I tip my hat to all the teams we've played so far, and we beat a great team tonight, and we held down a great lineup."
Asked earlier this week whether the U.S. players have as much fire inside as their opponents, catcher Buster Posey nodded and said, "100 percent."
"I think definitely here in the dugout, you know guys are into it and they care," Posey said, comparing the American players with those from other countries. "From an outsider's perspective, I don't know if a lot of guys' personalities are on display. We grow up in different parts of the world and play the game differently. I don't think it's really fair to players from different backgrounds to act a certain way for a tournament. But it doesn't mean there's less fire. There are just different ways we grew up playing the games."
Jones certainly showed that -- inside and out. Jones, a San Diego native, pumped his chest and hopped excitedly when he hit a game-tying home run Wednesday night that helped the U.S rally late to defeat Venezuela. He homered again the next game against Puerto Rico. And Saturday he made a miraculous catch over the center-field fence that robbed his Baltimore Orioles teammate Manny Machado of a home run that would have narrowed the score to 4-3.
Machado tipped his cap to Jones, who said he plans to give him "some ribbing" during the regular season. "And he robbed me of a hit earlier in the first inning, too," Jones said. "So it was just a little payback, just on a different situation."
Giancarlo Stanton also was important Saturday, singling and scoring the first run for the U.S. and then drilling a two-run home run over the left-field fence to give the Americans a 4-2 lead. He did so after not starting in the previous two games.
"That was the toughest part, without playing a couple days and understanding we've got to put the best guys out there who are feeling the best, too," Stanton said. "So you've got to lock it in ASAP and just get ready to go."
The U.S. will play in Tuesday's semifinal against Japan, the same team that knocked the Americans out of the 2009 semis at Dodger Stadium as well. Daisuke Matsuzaka was the winning pitcher for Japan in that game, which also featured Ichiro, Kosuke Fukudome and Kenji Johjima in the lineup. But this time, Japan has only one current major leaguer on the roster, Nori Aoki.
While it may not have the talent it had when it won the WBC title in 2006 and 2009 -- pitcher (and hitter) Shohei Otani, perhaps the best player in the world, isn't playing in this WBC because of an injury -- Japan still has won every game in this WBC.
"The style the Japanese play with is great," Jones said. "They play clean baseball. They're fundamentally sound. They hit behind the runners, they hit-and-run, they pitch, they play a great, clean game of baseball. I know our style here in the States is a little bit different. We have more power, more power pitchers.
"But at the end of the day, I respect the crap out of Japanese baseball, Japanese players and just how they carry their business."
The U.S. clearly deserves that respect as well.
"There were a lot of people that respectfully declined to play in the WBC, and we're not going to throw anybody under the bus," Leyland said. "We're going to honor the people that accepted and are here. So we're moving forward, and that's all we're talking about. ... And right now that's the only team I care about. And these players that are here are the only players I care about right now."
And the WBC is what the U.S. players care about as well as they head to Los Angeles for the final round while many of their teammates are readying themselves for the MLB regular season in spring training.
"At the end of the day I'm not representing the Orioles, Andrew McCutchen isn't representing the Pirates, Stanton is not representing the Marlins," Jones said. "We're representing the entire United States, and that right there is pretty special."
SAN DIEGO -- With a trip to the World Baseball Classic semifinals at stake for both teams, Petco Park was sold out for Saturday night's game between the United States and the Dominican Republic. The 43,002 fans were excited, with the Americans loudly chanting "USA! USA!" They'll have a chance to chant it again next week at Dodger Stadium after watching the U.S. beat the Dominican Republic 6-3 to advance to the final round.
The fans also could have shouted "Giancarlo! Giancarlo!" and "Adam! Adam!"
After singling and scoring Team USA's first run of the game to begin a comeback in the third inning, Giancarlo Stanton hit a two-run homer to give the Americans a 4-2 lead in the fourth. San Diego native Adam Jones helped protect that lead by making a fantastic leaping catch against the center-field fence to rob Orioles teammate Manny Machado of a home run in the seventh.
"I'm still in kind of shock that I even got to that ball. I mean, off the bat I'm just like this ball's hit really far, so just keep going, keep going," Jones said. "You know this California air's going to slow it down, and just never quit. That's just the style I play with. I don't mind running into a wall or two. I just kept going after the ball."
He added that, considering how Machado made a strong defensive play to throw him out on a grounder to third base in the first inning, Jones' catch evened things up with his teammate.
The U.S. will play in the WBC semifinals for just the second time in the history of the tournament, which started in 2006.
Three key things to know:
1. Rough start, strong rally: The U.S. has been criticized for not showing nearly as much fire and passion on the field as other countries in the WBC. But the players say they play with the same fire, they just keep it hidden inside.
Team USA was facing the reigning WBC champions for the second time this tournament. The two faced off last weekend in Miami, with the U.S. taking a 5-0 lead into the sixth inning, only to lose the game. This time, the Americans fell behind early but rallied back.
The U.S. gave up two runs in the first inning after shortstop Brandon Crawford bobbled a grounder and then threw wildly to first base. Starting pitcher Danny Duffy also threw a wild pitch on a strikeout that helped the Dominican Republic score two runs that inning. The Dominicans threatened to blow the game open the next inning when Gregory Polanco singled and Welington Castillo doubled to put runners on second and third with nobody out. Duffy, however, retired the next two batters on a popup and a short fly out, then got Robinson Cano to ground out.
The Americans came back right after that. Stanton singled to lead off the third inning and scored on a fielder's choice grounder by Ian Kinsler. Christian Yelich then doubled home Kinsler to tie the game.
Stanton gave the U.S. the lead in the fourth inning by slamming a two-run homer that sailed over the fence at an estimated 113 mph.
It was the second comeback this round by the U.S., which rallied to beat Venezuela in the latter innings of Wednesday’s game in San Diego.
2. Not quite enough Platano Power: The Dominicans, meanwhile, are very passionate on the field. They also are well-known for the Platano Power bit started by reliever Fernando Rodney when they won the 2013 WBC. Several fans could be seen holding and waving the fruit (or inflatable replicas of it) in the stands.
Having rallied last week in Miami, the Dominicans had a chance to come back in the seventh inning when Machado drilled a pitch to deep center, only to have Jones leap, extend his glove over the fence and catch the ball. Machado doffed his cap in honor of the catch by his Baltimore teammate.
Cano followed with a drive to left field that cleared the fence for a home run that narrowed the gap to 4-3.
The U.S. re-extended the lead the next inning, though, when Andrew McCutchen doubled home two runs, showing that the Americans play hard as well. They also pitched well, allowing just two earned runs.
Rather than defend their WBC championship, the Dominicans now will head back to their spring training camps.
3. Next up, Japan. Again: The only other time the U.S. reached the WBC semifinals, in 2009, it played Japan at Dodger Stadium and lost 9-4 to starter Daisuke Matsuzaka. Interestingly, the Americans will play Japan again in the semifinal game Tuesday, though they will not be facing Dice-K this time.
They will try to reach the championship game for the first time.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Arizona Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke looked spotty in his first three spring training appearances, so it stood to reason that he might receive an emotional jump-start playing an exhibition game against a Netherlands team that was talented enough to earn a spot in the World Baseball Classic semifinals. During his postgame media scrum Saturday, Greinke was asked if he felt any extra excitement taking on a lineup with Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts and Jurickson Profar at the top.
"There was less excitement, if anything," Greinke said, in his typically deadpan, understated way. "I don't know. I'd rather face real lineups that you're going to face during the regular season."
If Greinke was less than inspired by the disruption in his Cactus League routine, he certainly couldn't argue with the results.
After getting flogged in a previous start against Mexico's WBC squad and posting radar-gun readings that raised yellow caution flags, Greinke took some encouraging steps in Arizona's 12-5 victory over the Dutch squad. He gave up one run over five innings, and he flashed his entire four-pitch repertoire in a 70-pitch outing that included 50 strikes.
Even better, Greinke's velocity ticked upward from an average 88 mph reading in his previous appearance. He generally trafficked in the 90-91 range with his fastball, and dialed up one 92 mph heater to Netherlands outfielder Wladimir Balentien.
"I guess I'd say 'solid,' " Greinke said. "I'd like for it to be better, for sure. All the pitches could be a little crisper. The location could be a little better. I feel pretty good out there for the most part. But I'm not quite where I want it to be."
This spring marks a noticeable departure from February 2016, when Greinke arrived in Scottsdale to a barrage of questions about his six-year, $206.5 million contract. Lately he has been dogged by questions about a different number. When his radar-gun readings were underwhelming in his early outings, a natural debate ensued: Is he just pacing himself to be in peak form by the opener or has he lost enough zip at age 33 to make this a development worth monitoring closely?
"If it were a different time of the year, I would probably be a little bit concerned," Lovullo said. "I would be worried about fatigue and stuff like that. I still think he's climbing on the 'up' elevator. He knows what he needs to do to get where he wants to be on April 2."
Greinke's velocity peaked at an average of 94 mph in 2007, when he was 23 years old and moving closer to a breakout with the Kansas City Royals. As the FanGraphs numbers show, he has gradually become less dependent on the fastball and more reliant on his secondary pitches with experience and time. He threw his 91.3 mph fastball a career-low 48 percent of the time in 2016.
The gun readings might not be scrutinized so exhaustively if the results were consistent, but Greinke's first season as a Diamondback was a puzzler. His ERA jumped from 1.66 during the 2015 season in Los Angeles to 4.37 in 2016. Factor in Shelby Miller's implosion after his arrival from Atlanta by trade, and it helps explain how the Diamondbacks went from a trendy spring training pick to 69-93 and fourth place in the National League West.
Regardless of how hard Greinke throws, he's a wonderful all-around athlete with a refreshingly analytical approach to the game. He recorded his second pickoff of spring training Saturday and produced a single and a well-struck ball to the outfield in three plate appearances. He also gave a typically thoughtful response when asked if there's enough of a spread between a 91 mph fastball and an 87 mph changeup to keep opposing hitters off-balance.
"With my changeup, if they were the same velocity, I wouldn't be upset," Greinke said. "It's more a movement pitch than a changeup."
As the spring progresses, Arizona's catchers are discovering what a delightfully creative process it can be to work with Greinke. He has the smarts and the competitive instincts to adjust, and they can see him adding little flourishes with each Cactus League start.
"You don't want to come out the first day and go all out and then be behind the eight-ball with an injury," Iannetta said. "You want to work your way into it. He's not vying for a roster spot. He's not trying to make the team. All he's doing is preparing for Opening Day and trying to be the best pitcher he can be, and it's a process. He's right on track."
On the 1-10 spectrum of euphoric to downhearted over his performance, Greinke is somewhere in the middle right now. And that's fine with the Diamondbacks. At this stage of his career, he has earned the right to proceed at his own pace.
SAN DIEGO -- One of the finest pitchers of his generation, Felix Hernandez will turn 31 years old in April. But he already began looking old last season.
In probably his worst season in a decade, the 2010 Cy Young winner and six-time All-Star went 11-8 with a 3.82 ERA. His velocity dropped to around 90 mph, he struggled with his control and his strikeout-to-walk ratio fell to the lowest of his career at 1.88. As rough as all that was, he says the worst part was being on the disabled list for nearly two months with an injured right calf. "I'm not used to being on the DL," he said.
Things went so poorly for King Felix that at the end of the season, Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais said Hernandez would have to make adjustments during the winter to "come into spring training in a little better shape and with more urgency."
Hernandez did so, working out extensively during the offseason. "It was really good," he said. "I worked out more this offseason than ever before. I did it to get back where I used to be three years ago."
He also pitched briefly in the Venezuelan Winter League, partly in preparation for the World Baseball Classic. Hernandez had pitched in the 2009 WBC, but he skipped the 2013 tournament while finalizing a seven-year, $175 million contract with the Mariners. He made certain to return to the WBC this year.
"He’s one of the best pitchers we’ve had in Venezuela -- his career has been phenomenal," Venezuela general manager Carlos Guillen said. "He prepared himself for this tournament, preparing from November. He wanted to be 100 percent for this tournament."
Hernandez struggled in his first WBC start, but he looked close to his old form against the United States on Wednesday night when he threw five scoreless innings, allowing just three singles while striking out three. He also didn’t walk anyone.
With Venezuela going on to lose that game, as well as Thursday’s against the Dominican Republic, it might be Hernandez's last game in this WBC. If so, he will return to Mariners spring training and continue working to improve.
After watching Hernandez pitch Wednesday night on TV, Servais told reporters in Arizona that he was impressed with his performance, and that he used his secondary pitches differently, as the coaching staff has recommended.
"He tried them all last night and had success with all of them," Servais told the reporters. "That’s great. That’s what you want to happen when you are discussing different things. But he had great feel for all of them last night. So it’s going to be easier when you have that many weapons to go to."
One of the best and most popular players in Mariners history -- Seattle fans fill the King’s Court down the left-field line whenever he pitches -- Hernandez made his major league debut at just 19 years old. After he pitched eight scoreless innings to win his first game, a Seattle columnist said Hernandez would be the next Bob Gibson, Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez. He’s certainly been impressive. In addition to winning the 2010 Cy Young, the King has finished second twice, received votes three other seasons and also pitched the first perfect game by a Mariner in 2012.
Hernandez also has thrown a lot of pitches, averaging 228 innings a season from 2009 to 2015. That wear on his arm is one possible reason for the decline in his velocity, which once was around 96 mph. Asked whether he thinks his velocity will pick up thanks to his offseason training, Hernandez replied, "I don't know. I think it takes time."
As great as his career has been, though, there is one glaring omission on his resume. Hernandez has never pitched in the postseason. The Mariners have gone the longest of any current team without reaching the playoffs (15 seasons). They came somewhat close last season, finishing in second place in the American League West, nine games behind the first-place Rangers and three games behind the wild-card Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays. They might have come closer -- or even made the postseason -- had Hernandez been in his usual form.
Some predict Seattle will reach the postseason this year, though the Mariners’ chances probably depend on King Felix returning to the throne from which he ruled many seasons before his struggles last year. Hernandez says they can do it.
"I think we're good. We're different now," Hernandez said. "We're going to be more energetic, and it will be more fun. We've got more hunger, and we want to win."
After giving up four runs in the first inning, the U.S. went on to lose 6-5 to Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic on Friday night. The victory guaranteed Puerto Rico a spot in the WBC final round next week in Los Angeles.
"This is a huge victory for our people, for our country," Puerto Rico designated hitter Carlos Beltran said. "I know they are having a great time, and I know they are very proud. We are hoping in God to finish the mission."
Team USA, meanwhile, will play the WBC reigning champion Dominican Republic on Saturday night with the winner going to the final round as well. The U.S. has never reached the WBC championship game. The Dominican Republic beat Puerto Rico in the championship in 2013.
Five things to know about the games Friday and Saturday:
1. Rough start: U.S. starter Marcus Stroman began the game by allowing six consecutive singles to Angel Pagan, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Beltran, Yadier Molina and Javier Baez to give Puerto Rico a 4-0 lead. Stroman recovered after that and kept Puerto Rico scoreless until leaving the game with two outs in the fifth inning.
Stroman, by the way, has Puerto Rican ancestry but said he wanted to play for the U.S. because he is an American.
2. Failed comeback: After falling behind 4-0 in the first, the U.S. slowly crept back into the game with Eric Hosmer driving in Nolan Arenado in the second inning, followed by Buster Posey homering in the fifth inning and San Diego native Adam Jones homering in the sixth. But then Puerto Rico added two runs in the sixth on a two-out throwing error by Arenado, who has won a Gold Glove in all four of his major league seasons. Ouch!
The U.S. had a promising chance to come back when it put runners on first and second with none out in the ninth, but closer Edwin Diaz followed up by striking out Posey and Paul Goldschmidt. Brandon Crawford tripled home two runs to make it 6-5, but Josh Harrison then struck out to end the game.
3. Looking ahead: Saturday night’s game between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic should be a good one. The U.S. took a 5-0 lead into the sixth inning against the Dominicans last weekend in the first round at Miami but blew the lead and the game. The Dominican Republic also has won 12 of its past 13 WBC games. Danny Duffy will start for the U.S., while Ervin Santana starts for the D.R. Duffy was 12-3 with a 3.51 ERA with the Royals last season; Santana was 7-11 with a 3.38 ERA for the Twins.
Puerto Rico plays Venezuela in the early afternoon, but the outcome is meaningless since P.R. has already advanced to the next round with a 2-0 record, while Venezuela has been eliminated with an 0-2 record.
5. Increased attendance: The crowds had not been as good at Petco Park as they had been at several of the other WBC venues, with the first three games in San Diego all drawing fewer than 17,000 fans. As one fan said while looking at the empty seats during Thursday night’s game between the Dominican Republic and Venezuela:
“It looks like the crowds for the Padres in late April when they’re already out of the race.’’
Friday’s St. Patrick’s Day crowd, however, was far larger with an announced attendance of 32,463, or roughly double the fans at each of the previous three WBC games at Petco. It also was very enthusiastic, especially for the Puerto Rico fans. Hopefully, there will be even more fans for the decisive finale Saturday night.
SAN DIEGO -- Felix Hernandez missed nearly two months last season due to an injured right calf. So Seattle Mariners staff, teammates and fans must have been concerned Wednesday night when he felt pain in the upper part of his right leg after fielding a grounder in the first inning of the World Baseball Classic game between Venezuela and Team USA.
Fortunately, Hernandez stayed in the game and went on the pitch five scoreless innings. Said Venezuela manager Omar Vizquel, “Thank God he made a couple pitches and said he felt pretty good.’’
The risk of injury is why many major league teams don’t want their players competing in the WBC. Yet injuries occur in spring training, too, as we saw when Colorado’s Ian Desmond had his hand broken by a pitch in a Cactus League game Sunday. Which is why players in the WBC don't have any greater concerns about getting hurt in the tournament.
“You can get hurt in your spring training game just as easily as you can get hurt here,’’ Team USA and Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said. “So I throw that out the window -- because you see Ian Desmond, unfortunately, broke his hand. That’s spring training. We’re here playing, and we’re, knock on wood, staying healthy.
“Injuries happen. It doesn’t matter where you’re at. You could fall down the stairs.’’
“This is a sport where injuries happen,’’ Miller said. “You take care of yourself as well as you can. You prepare yourself for everything and you go out there and play the game.’’
Despite what Jones, Miller and others say, USA manager Jim Leyland -- a managerial veteran with more than two decades of experience in the major leagues -- said injuries are more likely in the WBC due to a more intense level of competition when playing for your country as opposed to getting ready for the season. As Puerto Rico’s Javier Baez said, it can be “a war’’ on the field in the WBC.
“Honestly, you're asking the players to amp it up a little bit more … for this venue than they would in their normal spring training,’’ Leyland said. “Spring training is more of a lengthy process where they just kind of go at their own pace. So it can be a little dangerous because you’re asking them to amp it up a little bit quicker than they normally would. That’s the one thing that makes you a little nervous.’’
Leyland said the chance of injury puts a lot of pressure on WBC managers when they are in charge of some other team’s players.
“Our No. 1 goal is to send these guys back healthy,’’ he said. “Hopefully it could be in a winning situation, send them back happy. But to be honest with you, my biggest goal is to send them all back healthy. I think that’s the most important thing.’’
Venezuela has had several players hurt this WBC, including Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez in a home plate collision with Royals teammate Drew Butera (though he expects to be ready for Opening Day). Marlins outfielder Martin Prado and Diamondbacks pitcher Silvino Bracho are out with hamstring injuries while pitcher Robert Suarez (who plays in Japan) has a serious elbow injury. Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera left Thursday’s game with tightness in his back, though he might play Saturday.
Still, Vizquel said that while the WBC games are more intense, that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more injuries here than anywhere else.
“It’s more of an issue if you don’t prepare,’’ Vizquel said. “I think every player here is responsible for what they do, and they know the commitments. Obviously, when you push your body to a different level, you have to be ready for that. So you have to prepare a lot earlier if you want to compete.
“If you’re not ready, you’re going to be open to injuries," Vizquel continued. "If you’re 100 percent, you don’t have to worry about it.’’
Dominican Republic manager Tony Pena said the first round is riskier than the others, particularly for pitchers.
“They’re not in their optimal condition, but as soon as you progress with the rounds, you’ll notice that the pitchers are in better shape," Pena said.
Those who know they will be on the WBC team, he added, start preparing their bodies as early as November to be in top shape.
Miller noted that injuries are a concern for pitchers in the WBC because they need to be focused on throwing hard and getting batters out rather than working on various pitches as is the case in spring training. Still, there are strict pitch limits in the WBC -- 65 pitches in the first round, 80 in the second and 95 in the final round. If a pitcher throws 30 or more pitches, he must take a day off, and if he throws 50 or more, he must take four days in a row off. And no one can throw three consecutive days.
Furthermore, there is a designated pitcher pool, which allows teams to drop and add hurlers as the WBC progresses, further reducing any strain on arms.
Kim Ng, vice president of operations for MLB, said that to lessen injury risks the league makes sure that the international federations and the major league teams communicate well about players “so that hopefully their [training] programs are being followed.’’
U.S. and Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich said he doesn’t think about the possibility of injuries when he plays.
“Never,’’ Yelich said. “You prepare your body the same way for a spring training game as these games. Try to make sure you’re loose. Obviously, injuries do happen and it’s unfortunate, but this is the most fun I’ve had playing baseball in my career. It’s not something I would ever want to pass up. It’s unfortunate there are injuries and it is a discussion, but I’m not worried.’’
While injury risks and regular-season preparations have prompted many American players to forgo competing in the WBC, perhaps that will change. Two-time MVP Mike Trout, arguably the best player in the majors, avoided this year’s WBC for personal reasons but said he will probably play in the future.
Regardless of whether the chance of injury is higher, lower or the same as spring training, Miller said the WBC experience is a good thing heading into the regular season.
“That’s one way to look at it,’’ Miller said. “I think this is a chance to walk away from this experience and feel like I’ve gotten better and not just gotten ready.’’
OK, so Mike Trout and Anthony Rizzo and Clayton Kershaw aren’t playing for the United States in the World Baseball Classic. Well, in an exciting 4-2 victory over Venezuela on Wednesday, Adam Jones homered in the eighth inning to tie it, Eric Hosmer hit a two-run homer a few batters later to win it, and Drew Smyly did his best Kershaw impersonation, allowing just one unearned run with eight strikeouts in 4⅔ innings, including whiffing the final six batters he faced: Martin Prado, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Rougned Odor, Alcides Escobar and Carlos Gonzalez.
Presumably pumped up by the WBC environment and knowing he was on a strict pitch count, Smyly's fastball averaged 92.4 mph, compared to 90.2 last season. Or maybe the Mariners have unlocked something in his delivery, since he was also throwing harder in his spring training outing last week. His final pitch to Gonzalez clocked in at 94.4. It wasn’t just the increased velocity; he threw some nice fadeaway cutters and a swing-and-miss curve. Remember, Smyly has had some good periods of pitching before. Over a 35-start stretch from June 2014 through early May of last season, sandwiched around an injury in 2015 that limited him to 12 starts, he had a 2.90 ERA over 211 innings. Mariners fans had to be very happy with what they saw.
Anyway, the U.S. now faces Puerto Rico in its second game of the second round, Friday night at San Diego's Petco Park (10 p.m. ET, ESPN Deportes). Both teams won their openers, so the winner sits in a strong position to advance to the semifinals. Puerto Rico, looking to go 5-0 in the tournament, sends Mets right-hander Seth Lugo to the mound against Marcus Stroman. On Saturday, the U.S. faces the Dominican Republic in a rematch of their epic first-round encounter, with Danny Duffy facing Ervin Santana.
Lugo, an obscure 34th-round pick out of Centenary College in Louisiana, was pressed into service in the Mets’ rotation in 2016 after a slew of injuries even though he had an ugly 6.50 ERA at Triple-A Las Vegas. Like teammate Robert Gsellman, he pitched much better once he escaped the high altitude of Vegas, posting a 2.67 ERA over 64 innings in the majors. After allowing a .329 average for Vegas, he allowed a .220 average with the Mets. In the process, he became a folk hero among the stathead crowd when it was discovered his curveball had the highest spin rate in the majors -- including a "record" 3,498 rpm for one pitch, if you’re keeping track (the average MLB curveball average is 2,469 rpm).
That could explain part of his problems in Las Vegas; harder to spin the ball at higher altitude. With the Mets, he relied on his low-90s fastball, throwing it 57 percent of the time, and actually threw his slider a little more often than his curveball. The curveball, however, was his go-to strikeout weapon, with a 35 percent strikeout rate and a swing-and-miss rate of 34 percent. Batters hit .235 against it in a small sample of 37 plate appearances ending with the pitch. Nobody seems to know exactly what profile the 27-year-old will fit moving forward, particularly with a crowded Mets rotation that will be difficult to crack and his mediocre track record in the minors, but Lugo is certainly capable of delivering a big game for Puerto Rico.
Stroman was excellent against the Dominican in his first start in the WBC, tossing 4⅔ scoreless innings. It will be interesting to see the strategy manager Jim Leyland uses with the U.S. bullpen. Stroman threw 64 pitches in that game and can be extended to 80 in the second round, but Leyland can also rely on a deep pen that had a day off after the victory over Venezuela, so there shouldn’t be a need to push Stroman all the way to 80 pitches unless he's dealing zeroes again. Andrew Miller faced one batter Wednesday and threw just four pitches, so he’s available, potentially for more than three outs if needed (Leyland intended to do that when he faced the Dominican Republic in the first round, only to see Nelson Cruz and Starling Marte homer). Luke Gregerson got the save against Venezuela, so he might be the closer here.
Leyland is probably reluctant to use relievers on back-to-back days -- especially Miller, as I’m sure Terry Francona has told him to be careful with his guy considering the extra innings he threw last October -- so worrying about Saturday plays into the bullpen strategy as well. I’d go all-out to beat Puerto Rico and then worry about the state of your pitching against the Dominican on Saturday.
The U.S. catches a bit of a break there, as they won’t face Johnny Cueto, who won’t be joining the D.R. unless it makes the championship round. The key is scoring runs off Santana, as the D.R. will be in a must-win situation, meaning manager Tony Pena will want to rely on the strength of his pitching staff, a bullpen that includes Hector Neris, Alex Colome, Dellin Betances, Hansel Robles, Fernando Rodney and Jeurys Familia.
Duffy was brilliant against Canada, but Canada isn’t the Dominican Republic. Other than Robinson Cano, the D.R. will probably run out eight right-handed or switch-hitters, and Duffy had a huge platoon split last season: .760 OPS allowed against righties compared to .449 against lefties. Depending on what happens Friday, Leyland might have to consider a quicker hook on Duffy and go to the righties in his bullpen. Winning the pool is important as well, as you’d presumably rather face the Netherlands than Japan in the semifinals, given the lack of major league pitchers on the Netherlands staff (although Kenley Jansen will be joining the team). You also get an extra day off before the championship game, playing Monday and Wednesday rather than Tuesday and Wednesday.
It will be fun to see who steps up in the U.S. lineup. Hosmer had among the worst adjusted numbers of any of the hitters on the team last season, but Leyland has been playing him at first base and batting him fifth (and using Paul Goldschmidt at designated hitter). Hosmer rewarded that faith with his big home run off Hector Rondon. Alex Bregman played shortstop Wednesday, but I expect we’ll see Brandon Crawford back out there. Keep in mind that Puerto Rico actually knocked the U.S. out of the tournament in 2013, with a 4-3 victory in a different format than this year’s round-robin. Hosmer, Jones and Giancarlo Stanton likely remember that game: All three were in the lineup and went a combined 2-for-12.