The final four for the WBC starts now. Can Japan make it three tournaments in a row? Or can Puerto Rico keep Cinderella at the ball for one more game?
The World Baseball Classic shifts to AT&T Park as the final four teams play a single elimination tournament to determine a champion. Up first is Puerto Rico and Japan tonight at 6 pm local time or 8 pm Chicago time. Japan, as the higher seed, is the designated home team. The game is televised on the MLB Network.
The starting pitcher for Japan is Kenta Maeda, who is 2-0 with ten scoreless innings in two starts in the tournament. He's struck out fifteen batters and has walked only one. One of those starts was against a weak China team, but the other was against fellow semi-finalist the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Opposing him is Mario Santiago, who spent seven years in the Royals system, reaching Triple-A in 2011. He pitched in Korea in 2012. Santiago gave up 3 runs in 4.1 innings and took the loss in the first game of the second round against the United States.
Starting lineup for Puerto Rico
And starting for Japan
Who are they? Japan has won both of the previous two World Baseball Classics, but this time they are trying to win without the stars of the previous two tournaments, such as Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish. This team has taken to calling themselves "Samurai Japan."
Japan likes to bunt a lot and play use a lot of one-run strategies. In the Tokyo Dome the team showed some power, but they'll be challenged to hit the ball out of AT&T Park.
How did they get here? Japan went 2-1 in the opening round of the tournament, beating China and Brazil before losing a game to Cuba after they had already clinched a trip to the second round. They went undefeated in the second round by coming from behind to beat Chinese Taipei 4-3 in ten innings (after Chien-Ming Wang exited the game) and then crushing the Netherlands twice, 16-4 and 10-6. (The second game wasn't as close as the score indicates: Japan had an 8-1 lead after two innings.)
Who to look for: Tonight's starter, Kenta Maeda, only throws 90-91 mph, but he has good movement, pinpoint control and can throw four pitches for strikes. He was the 2010 Sawamura Award winner in NPB and was 14-7 with a 1.53 ERA for Hiroshima last season. At 24 years old, he's still four seasons away from free agency, but it is expected that Hiroshima will post him before then. Expect to see him in the majors in either 2014 or more likely, 2015.
Tomorrow night's starter, Masahiro Tanaka, was the Sawamura Award winner in 2011. Tanaka throws a bit harder (91-93 mph). He also has a plus slider and a good splitter. He's also 24, but he's only three years away from free agency. He was 10-4 with a 1.87 ERA for Rakuten this past year. There's a very good chance Tanaka gets posted to MLB at the end of this season.
Catcher Shinnosuke Abe is the offensive hero of Samurai Japan, although he turns 34 on Wednesday and is unlikely to make the move to MLB at this point. Shortstop Hayato Sakamoto has a major league glove and hit .311 with 14 home runs and 16 steals last season for Yomiuri. He's also 24 and three years away from free agency and is likely to make the transition to MLB by then at the latest. He may not hit a ton in the US, but his glove could make him a major league starter even if his offense is sub-par.
Team Puerto Rico
Who are they? Led by former Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez, Team Puerto Rico surrounds a handful of all-star players with a lot of fringe players and minor league veterans. They win by scratching out runs and solid pitching from a bunch of mostly no-names.
How did they get here? If you're reading this, you already know that Team Puerto Rico beat the United States 4-3 on Friday to advance. Before then, they knocked off another baseball titan when they beat Venezuela on 6-3. Overall in the tournament they're 4-3, with two losses to the Dominican Republic and one to the United States.
Who to look for? Everyone here already knows who Yadier Molina is, but the job he's done handling the Puerto Rico pitching staff, with limited major league experience, is perhaps the number one reason they are here. The outfield is also a strength for Puerto Rico with Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan, Alex Rios and Jesus Feliciano, who has been in Triple-A for the Mets and Rays since 2005. He played 54 games with the New York Mets in 2010.
Puerto Rico's pitching doesn't match up with Japan's, but if they can get to J.C. Romero in the pen, they've got a chance for the upset.
The Pick: On paper, Japan should win this one easily. Of course, on paper the United States and Venezuela should have beaten Puerto Rico as well.