World Cup Quarterfinal Preview

With one of its strongest teams in recent years, Team USA heads into its quarterfinal matchup tomorrow against South Korea as the top seed from Pool A after finishing 6-1 in pool play.

“Up and down the lineup, we’ve had different heroes every day,” Team USA manager Davey Johnson said in an interview from Taiwan. “The pitching has been outstanding, and the hitting and defense have been good too.”

Team USA’s greatest strength heading into the tournament appeared to be its talented corner infielders and center fielder Colby Rasmus (Cardinals). So far, they have all lived up to lofty expectations. Third baseman Andy LaRoche (Dodgers) has come through in crucial situations hitting in the middle of the lineup, going 10-for-26 with seven extra-base hits and a .385/.433/.808 line.

“Andy LaRoche has great makeup,” Johnson said. “He’s had a great series and he’s just such a tough competitor.”

Rasmus has provided a consistent spark at the top of the order, getting on base and driving the ball for extra-base hits. Rasmus is 10-for-28 with six walks and two stolen bases, both of which are team-highs. With five doubles and a home run, Rasmus is hitting .357/.471/.643 at the World Cup.

Evan Longoria (Rays) has rotated with LaRoche between playing third base and DH, and the 2006 No. 3 overall pick is 10-for-28 with two home runs, a triple and two doubles (.357/.379/.714). The former Long Beach State shortstop has also shown good defensive skills at third base.

Second baseman Jayson Nix (Rockies) has rewarded Johnson’s decision to bat him second in the lineup by going 8-for-24 (.333) with a home run, a triple and two doubles. Nix, who hit .292/.342/.451 in 2007 in a favorable hitting environment at Triple-A Colorado Springs, has also made valuable defensive contributions.

Outfielder Justin Ruggiano (Rays), who made the team after Minor League Player of the Year Jay Bruce (Reds) dropped out to nurse a sore hamstring, hit two home runs in Team USA’s 10-7 victory over host Taiwan in the final game of pool play. With a team-best three home runs, Ruggiano is 7-for-20 with a .350/.480/.800 line.

The pitching for Team USA has also been strong, a promising sign given that it was one of the question marks heading into the World Cup. The bullpen has been strong as expected, but Johnson admits that his relievers have had to throw a lot of innings in a short period of time.

“They’ve been consistent so far,” Johnson said. “Innings-wise, we’ve been a little short, so some guys have been overworked.”

As a staff, Team USA has a 1.35 ERA in 60 innings, although some costly errors have led to nine of the team’s 18 runs being unearned, giving the team a 2.70 run average. In the bullpen, righthanders Jeff Stevens (Indians) and lefthander Neal Musser (Royals) have combined for 8 2/3 innings without giving up a run, surrendering just two hits and one walk with eight strikeouts.

With quarterfinal action beginning tomorrow, here’s a breakdown of the remaining teams. All statistics are unofficial and the times listed are Taiwan local times.

United States (A1) vs. South Korea (B4) (6 p.m.)
Righthander Jeff Karstens (Yankees) will get the start for Team USA, which last won a gold medal at the World Cup in 1974. Karstens, who was hurt for a significant portion of 2007 but spent most of his time in Triple-A and the majors, has pitched six scoreless innings at the World Cup. Johnson said righthander Matt Wright (Royals) would likely be the starter for the team’s next game.

South Korea, which won the silver medal at the World Cup in 2005, finished pool play 4-3 and got into the quarterfinals on the last day with an 8-1 victory over Germany and with Canada’s 7-6 loss to Australia. South Korea’s only victory against a team with a winning record was a 5-0 victory over Canada on Nov. 7 during the first day of World Cup play.

Outfielder Ji Wan Na is 12-for-26 (.462/.500/.538), shortstop Si Hyun Son is 10-for-25 (.400/.452/.560) and outfielder Jae Woong Yoo is 6-for-20 with a team-high two home runs (.300/.462/.650).

South Korea’s pitching has been strong, mostly because of its two best pitchers. Lefthander Won Jun Chang has allowed one run in 13 innings (0.69 ERA) and has 11 strikeouts. Lefthander Seung Ho Lee has a 2.79 ERA in 9 2/3 innings with 16 strikeouts and three walks. The 26-year-old Lee is a former Korea Baseball Organization rookie of the year and has continued his strong showings in international competition. In the 2000 Olympics, Lee allowed one run in 4 2/3 innings and had nine strikeouts at age 19, helping Korea to a bronze medal.

Team Hitting
South Korea: .307/.386/.443 in 267 plate appearances
USA: .292/.374/.551 in 270 plate appearances

Team Pitching
South Korea: 59 2/3 IP, 2.41 ERA, 2.56 RA, 66 SO, 19 BB
USA: 60 IP, 1.35 ERA, 2.70 RA, 54 SO, 10 BB

Netherlands (B3) vs. Taiwan (A2) (12 p.m.)
Taiwan finished 5-2 in pool play, with losses against the United States and Mexico.

“They have a lot of good hitters in that lineup,” Johnson said. “Then they have the crowd on their side and that really gets them going.”

Taiwan’s best hitter in the tournament has been first baseman Chia-Hsian Hsieh, who is 10-for-27 with three home runs (.370/.519/.778). Hsieh, 31, has been a power hitter in the Chinese Professional Baseball League since 2003, and hit the 5,000th home run in CPBL history.

DH Chin-Feng Chen, the first player born in Taiwan to play in the majors, is 11-for-31 with two home runs (.355/.394/.613). Third baseman Tai-Shan Chang (11-for-28, .393/.419/.643) and shortstop Chih-Sheng Lin (8-for-29, .276/.364/.517) have also played well for Taiwan.

The Netherlands (5-2) had its best moment of the World Cup on Wednesday when the Dutch defeated Cuba 2-1, although the game had no seeding ramifications for Cuba.

“The Dutch
have had some injuries, but they are definitely are a threat,” one international scout said via e-mail. “Just ask the
Cubans. Amazing how Holland seems to always play Cuba tough. Maybe it’s
because they play them so much every summer in the World Port and Honkball

The Netherlands has been a strong contact-hitting team with a .337 batting average in the World Cup. Right fielder Dirk Van’t Klooster and left fielder Bryan Engelhardt have put forth the team’s best performances at the plate so far. Van’t Klooster, a 31-year-old veteran of international competition ranging from the 1994 World Junior Championships to the 2006 World Baseball Classic, is 11-for-27 (.407/.467/.593).

Engelhardt, 25, is 8-for-21 with two home runs (.381/.480/.714) and has already been intentionally walked three times. Engelhardt has won two home run titles for the Almere Magpies of the Hoofdklasse Honkbal, which is the Netherlands’ top professional baseball league. DH Sharnol Adriana is 10-for-28 (.357/.406/.536) and  Sidney De Jong is 9-for-23 (.391/.522/.565). Shortstop Hainley Statia (Angels) has struggled, going 6-for-32 (.188) with one extra-base hit.

Seven-foot-1 righthander Loek Van Mil (Twins) has not allowed a run or a walk in 7 1/3 innings. Van Mil, 23, has had his fastball sit in the low- to mid-90s and touch 97 in Taiwan.

Team Hitting
Taiwan: .285/.356/.459 in 289 plate appearances
Netherlands: .337/.391/.467 in 279 plate appearances

Team Pitching
Taiwan: 61 IP, 3.69 ERA, 3.69 RA, 61 SO, 17 BB
Netherlands: 59 1/3 IP, 3.19 ERA, 3.34 RA, 43 SO, 23 BB

Japan (A3) vs. Australia (B2) 12 p.m.
Japan finished 5-2 in pool play, an impressive showing given that the country is fielding a team of amateur players.

Japan’s pitchers have struck out 67 batters in 57 innings, mostly due to the dominance of Tadashi Settsu. The righthander has a 0.56 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 16 innings. Lefthander Takashi Saito has also pitched well for Japan with a 1.86 ERA, 12 strikeouts and one walk in 9 2/3 innings.

At the plate, Japan’s best hitter at the World Cup has been first baseman/DH Yasuyuki Saigo, who is 8-for-16 with four doubles and a home run (.500/600/.938). Second baseman Kinichi Yokoyama (8-for-21 with eight walks, .381/.500/.667) and center fielder Hisayoshi Chono (10-for-22, .455/.500/.591) have also hit well.

Australia has been one of the best teams at the World Cup, with its only loss a 2-1 defeat against Cuba. With three walk-off wins, a walk-off loss and the one-run loss to Cuba, there has been no shortage of tension and excitement when Australia has taken the field.

The Australians have several minor league prospects, and their best two hitters have been a pair of Twins farmhands: center fielder Trent Oeltjen, who is 18-for-30 with three stolen bases (.600/.647/.700) and second baseman Luke Hughes, who is 10-for-25 with two home runs (.400/.423/.700). Oeltjen, 24, hit .238/.303/.340 in 244 at-bats for Triple-A Rochester this year and appeared in the Futures Game in 2006. Hughes, 23, hit .283/.356/.438 for Double-A New Britain in 2007.

Shortstop Brad Harman (Phillies) is 10-for-28 with four doubles (.357/.438/.500) and Justin Huber (Royals) is 11-for-30 with four doubles (.367/.406/.500).

Pitching has been a strength for Australia, and the team has received contributions from a variety of players. Dushan Ruzic (Reds) has yet to allow a run in 7 1/3 innings, striking out seven and walking one. Righthander Scott Mitchinson (Phillies), 22, has a 2.35 ERA through 7 2/3 innings. Lefthander Travis Blackley (Giants) has a 1.69 ERA in 5 1/3 innings, and lefthander Adam Blackley (Red Sox) has a 1.35 ERA in 6 2/3 innings.

Team Hitting
Japan: .302/.363/.441 in 272 plate appearances
Australia: .343/.374/.494 in 289 plate appearances

Team Pitching
Japan: 57 IP, 3.00 ERA, 3.16 RA, 67 SO, 13 BB
Australia: 64 IP, 2.43 ERA, 2.86 RA, 48 SO, 17 BB

Mexico (A4) vs. Cuba (B1) (6 p.m.)
Panama was originally slated to play Cuba in this matchup, but according to a statement by the International Baseball Federation, Panama was forced to forfeit two of its games because five of of the Panamanian players were playing without proper insurance.

Mexico (4-3), which lost 3-2 to Panama, has had much better hitting in the World Cup than it has had pitching. Mexico has allowed 5.1 runs per nine innings, although most of that damage came in a 15-3 loss to Japan.

Second baseman Fernando Alejos, who played in the Mexican League this year, is 8-for-19 with two triples and three doubles (.421/.476/.789). Center fielder Estrella Contreras is  11-for-24 with a homer, a triple and four doubles (.458/.625/.833) and third baseman Espinoza Rodriguez is 11-for-23 with two home runs (.478/.613/.783).

Cuba, the heavy favorite heading into the World Cup, is seeking its 10th consecutive gold medal at the competition. Cuba has had excellent hitting and pitching, and the team’s best hitter so far has been 27-year-old left fielder Frederich Cepeda, who is 13-for-26 with a homer, two triples and two doubles (.500/.552/.846). Cepeda is a patient hitter who has shown the ability to drive the ball on a line when he gets a good pitch to hit. Right fielder Yoandry Urgelles is 8-for-24 with five extra-base hits (.333/.393/.708).

Third baseman Yuliesky Gourriel, who hits third in Cuba’s lineup and is one of the most dangerous power hitters at the World Cup, is 7-for-28 with three home runs (.250/.323/.571). First baseman Alex Mayeta, Cuba’s cleanup hitter, is 10-for-31 with three doubles (.323/.344/.419).

Cuba’s most memorable pitching performance came in a 10-0 victory over Venezuela in seven innings. Righthander Yadel Marti was one out away from a perfect game before giving up a hit with two outs in the seventh inning (international games after seven innings if one team is ahead by at least 10 runs). Righthander Vladimir Banos has also given Cuba a strong contribution in his two starts, posting a 2.13 ERA in 12 2/3 innings with 15 strikeouts and one walk. Righthander Pedro Luis Lazo, a longtime staple on the Cuban pitching staff, has only thrown two innings in relief and has not allowed a run.

Team Hitting
Mexico: .361/.395/.584 in 271 plate appearances
Cuba: .312/.383/.513 in 266 plate appearances

Team Pitching
Mexico: 56 IP, 4.50 ERA, 5.14 RA, 56 SO, 22 BB
Cuba: 60 IP, 1.65 ERA, 1.95 RA, 57 SO, 11 BB

SCHEDULE (not including consolation games)

(Game 1): Netherlands vs. Taiwan 12 p.m.
(Game 2): Japan vs. Australia 12 p.m.
(Game 3): South Korea vs. USA 6 p.m.
(Game 4): Mexico vs. Cuba 6 p.m.

(Game 5): Game 2 winner vs. Game 4 winner 6 p.m.
(Game 6): Game 1 winner vs. Game 3 winner 6 p.m.

Bronze medal game: Game 5 loser vs. Game 6 loser
Gold medal game: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner 4:30 p.m.