Unless you’re a soccer fan, you’re probably not used to seeing the U.S. as an underdog in a major international sports competition. But here we are in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic—America’s Pastime—and Team USA is undoubtedly the underdog.
Team USA plays Japan at 8 p.m. ET Sunday in the second semifinal, with South Korea and Venezuela playing Saturday at the same time. The winners meet Monday at Dodger Stadium, site of all three games this weekend.
If you’re an American baseball fan who hasn’t paid attention to the World Baseball Classic, you may be shocked to find that the Americans’ pitching staff is not the deepest staff in the semifinals. In fact, you could argue that it is one of the thinnest.
Japan, which comes into the semifinals having allowed six runs in its first six games (for a sparkling 1.06 ERA) can send Red Sox righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka, who seems to pitch his best on the international stage, followed by 22-year-old phenom Yu Darvish. Or Japan could turn to Hisashi Iwakuma, fresh off his surgical amputation of Cuba’s bats, with Darvish bringing his 97 mph heat in from the pen.
The Americans’ counter? They have a very steady Roy Oswalt, but after him, they have to hope that Jake Peavy’s disastrous second WBC start was a fluke. There aren’t really any other good options, as Team USA’s other two starters, Ted Lilly (5.68 ERA) and Jeremy Guthrie (14.73 ERA) have not inspiried confidence.
But the story doesn’t get any better when you turn to the bullpens. Heath Bell, LaTroy Hawkins and Brad Ziegler all have ERA’s above 6.00 for Team USA.
At least the Americans have most of their health drama behind them. They’ve added Evan Longoria to the roster, replacing the injured Chipper Jones, but had yet to replace Kevin Youkilis, who had been the team’s No. 3 hitter before he rolled an ankle, and righty Matt Lindstrom, leaving manager Davey Johnson with a 26-man roster. Youkilis’ three homers are tied for the team lead with Adam Dunn.
His injury also left Team USA without a true first baseman, and Johnson indicated Mark DeRosa would likely man first base. DeRosa said Team USA’s members were thrilled to advance to the semifinals amid their challenges, culminating in a 6-5, come-from-behind victory against Puerto Rico to clinch the semis berth.
“We’re fine. "After (Wednesday) night, anything was going to be a letdown," he said. "That was one of the great moments in a lot of guys’ career, and it was a special moment rushing out on the field with all your teammates and advancing.”
Japan also replaced an injured star, with Kenti Kurihara, who hit .332 with 23 homers and 103 RBIs last season for the Hiroshima Carp, replacing corner infielder Shuichi Murata, who has hit two of Japan’s four home runs in the Classic.
The U.S. has had success against Japan internationally over the years, including a win against Japan last year in the Olympic bronze-medal game. The U.S. also beat Japan in the 2000 Olympic opener, a matchup of Ben Sheets and Daisuke Matsuzaka, winning 4-2 in 13 innings.
South Korea and Venezuela match up in the other semifinal, to be played Saturday. Between its Classic success this year and in ’06, its world junior title last year and its 2008 Olympic gold medal, South Korea has emerged as an international baseball power. However, a physical Venezuela team poses problems, and the intensity and familiarity of the South Korean matchups with Cuba and Japan may be lacking.
“Many of them are Major Leaguers and they have important positions in the Major Leagues," South Korea manager In Sik Kim said. "From April to October, every day we watch the Major League teams playing, so we have seen them many times. We know which player is what kind of specialty and so on, but we don’t know everyone in detail. No matter what, we will do our best, and we will play with them all the way to the end.”
Venezuela is having its first significant success on the international baseball stage at any level. It won three World Cups during World War II (1941, ’44 and ’45), and won the Pan Am Games event in 1959. Otherwise, Venezuela’s teams have not rarely even participated internationally, which kind of makes any success difficult.
However, drawing on its big leaguers has allowed Venezuela to have a strong team in this Classic, and the team is hitting .309 with 36 extra-base hits (including 12 home runs) in seven WBC games. It also has ace Felix Hernandez ready to face South Korea’s ace, lefty Hyunjin Ryu, in the semifinal.
"This team is doing the small things to win the games," manager Luis Sojo said, "and when there is teamwork in the way Venezuela is playing, that’s very important.
"All the guys are focused. All of them are expecting to help out in something that’s being achieved, and that is winning the championship. As a manager, when you have a group like that, it’s actually difficult to get on them, because they came with that goal."
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