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Breaking down the Classic's final four
by John Manuel and Matt Meyers
International History: Cuba's dominance of international baseball is unparalleled. It has won the last nine baseball World Cups, the latest played in September 2005, as well as Olympic gold medals in 1992, '96 and 2004. Since wood bats and professionals were introduced in international play in 1997, Cuba has hardly skipped a beat. After losing Intercontinental Cups in '97 and '99 and losing to Ben Sheets and Team USA in the 2000 Olympics, Cuba has won every tournament it has entered.
Players To Watch: Yuliesky Gourriel (6-for-24, 2 HR, 6 RBIs); Yoany Garlobo (8-for-17, 2 XBH); Frederich Cepeda (7-for-20, .480 OBP); Yadiel Marti (1-0, 0.00, 8.1 IP, 9 SO, 2 SV); Pedro Luis Lazo (4.26 ERA, 6.1 IP, 1 SV); Ormari Romero (2-0, 1.08, 8.1 IP, 9 SO); Vicyohandry Odelin (0-1, 5.63, 1 SV, 8 IP).
Cuba Scouting Report: This is not the Cuban Red Machine that used to steamroll opponents, yet it's a good team that executes when necessary. Gourriel hits third, has played excellent defense at third base and has shown excellent raw power. He's the only everyday player who profiles as a big league regular, but as one scout said who saw Cuba in the first two rounds, "You can't discount what goes on between the ears and in their hearts." Catcher Ariel Pestano isn't a force offensively anymore, but his leadership should not be discounted. Cuba's pitchers are solid, but Lazo--who was throwing 97 mph with a mid-80s slider against Venezuela in the second round--can be spectacular.
San Diego Outlook: Cuba has the stage it thirsts for--a championship on the line in a tournament full of major leaguers. Cuba has already proven it can play with anyone, as evidenced by victories over Venezuela--which had a roster as talented as any in the Classic--and a homestanding Puerto Rico team that had crushed Cuba in the first round.
The Cubans responded with grit, playmaking and poise. They control the game's tempo, slowing things down when they want to, and have shown the ability to get inside the head of their opponents. They do the little things to win. But Cuba can do the big things--hit the big home run, make the crucial defensive play, throw the out pitch.
Only the Dominican seemed unfazed by Cuba's combination of gamesmanship and talent. The Dominican is a tough matchup for Cuba because of its power arms and power bats, but a victory over the D.R. would make Cuba a favorite to win the title, as it has consistently beaten Asia's top teams in international play in the past.
Dominican Republic (5-1)
International History: Coincidentally, it was Cuba, its opponent in the semifinals, that introduced baseball to the Dominican Republic. After fleeing Cuba during the Ten Years War (1868-1878), many refugees found themselves on the shores of the Dominican Republic, where they helped popularize the game that was so popular in their native Cuba. Although the island nation has produced dozens of stars at the major league level, it has had little success in international baseball. The Dominican Republic finished third at the Intercontinental Cup in 1981 and 2002, but has only qualified for the Olympics once (1992) and has not been a factor at the World Cup in decades.
Players To Watch: 3B Adrian Beltre (6-for-16, 4 HR, 9 RBIs); DH David Ortiz (3-for-16, 3 HR, 8 BB); Bartolo Colon (1-0, 1.13, 8 IP); Daniel Cabrera (1-0, 1.23, 7.1 IP, 9 Ks); Francisco Liriano (1.69, 5.1 IP, 8 Ks); Duaner Sanchez, Salomon Torres and Fernando Rodney (10.1 combined relief innings, zero earned runs allowed).
Dominican Republic Scouting Report: Boasting a lineup that is considered the best in the Classic, the Dominicans' calling card has been power. Their nine home runs are the most of the remaining four teams. Conversely, their pitchers have done a remarkable job of preventing home runs, having surrendered just three in 54 innings. Pitching depth was considered their potential weakness entering the tournament, but the emergence of Cabrera and Liriano have made it a strength, though they will need to beat Cuba without that pair because both pitched extensively on Tuesday against Venezuela.
San Diego Outlook: The Dominicans were considered by many to be the favorite entering the tournament, and they have done nothing to temper that. Having clinched a semifinal birth on Tuesday, they should be well rested for their showdown with Cuba. Reigning Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon will get the start in that game and will have a full compliment of relievers behind him.
If victorious, the question for Acta will be who to start in the finals. Odalis Perez has been the No. 2 starter thus far but has not been as impressive as Cabrera or Liriano. Perez could be used in relief against Cuba, but having pitched against Cuba on Monday in pool play, Acta could be wary of Cuba being too comfortable facing Perez again just five days later.
International History: With the exception of Cuba, Japan has the richest international baseball history of the four remaining teams. It won the World Cup in 1973 and 1997 and has medaled in every Olympics except for 2000, when it finished fourth.
Players To Watch: Nobuhiko Matsunaka (9-for-22, .519 OBP); Tsuyoshi Nishioka (8-for-22, 2 HR, 8 RBIs, .727 SLG); Tomoya Satozaki (7-for-16, 1 HR, 4 RBIs); Shunsuke Watanabe (10.2 IP, 0.84, 4 H, 4 K); Daisuke Matsuzaka (2-0, 1.00, 9 IP); Tsuyoshi Wada (0.00, 2 IP).
Japan Scouting Report: Japan's three wins have come by a margin of 38-6, while its three losses have all been by one run. The Japanese have been able to keep all their opponents from scoring, having not given up more than four runs in any game, but their bats have not gotten going against tougher pitching, having scored just three runs in their two games against Korea and three runs against the United States.
Ichiro Suzuki is their marquee player, but he has been relatively quiet thus far. His emergence will be vital for Japan to get its offense going.
San Diego Outlook: Japan will get its third shot at Korea and will be have extra motivation as they try and avoid the embarrassment of a sweep at the hands of its Asian neighbor. Koji Uehara is set to take the mound against Korea after allowing only one run to the United States over five innings. The lefthander is a control artist who walked just 22 hitters in 182 innings for Fukuoka in the Japanese League last season. Oh will also certainly be hoping that the southpaw can neutralize Seung Yeop Lee and Hee Seop Choi, Korea's two powerful lefthanded bats that have hit all six of Korea's home runs in the Classic.
With a win against Korea, Japan would have its ace, Daisuke Matsunaka ready for the finals. But while there might have been a time when Japan would have looked past Korea, there is no way that will happen now.
International History: Korea's recent baseball history really kicked off when it won the Asian Amateur championship in 1971. Its professional league, the Korean Baseball Organization, was founded in late 1981 and played its first game in March 1982. Baseball progressed in Korea, with Chan Ho Park becoming the first major league player of Korean heritage. Prior to the World Baseball Classic, Korea's high-water mark was a bronze medal in the 2000 Olympics, but Korea failed to qualify for the 2004 games.
Players To Watch: 1B Seung Yeop Lee (8-for-20, 5 HR, 10 RBIs); OF Jong Beom Lee (9-for-21, 3 RBIs, 5 2B); RHP Jae Seo (2-0, 1.00, 9 IP, 2 BB, 7 SO); RHP Chan Ho Park (0.00 ERA, 3 SV, 10 IP, 7 H, 0 BB, 8 SO); LHP Dae-Sung Koo (1-0, 1.13, 8 IP); RHP Byung-Hyun Kim (1-0, 0.00, 4.1 IP, 6 SO).
Korea Scouting Report: The Classic's surprise team has won all six games with a mix of pitching, defense and timely hitting. Korea leads the Classic with a 1.33 ERA. While most other teams in the Classic have not been able to coax star performances out of their best players, Seung Yeop Lee has come up big in every instance. His two-run homer beat Japan in the final game of the first round, and he hit another one to provide all the runs Korea needed against Mexico. Jong Beom Lee, the 35-year-old team captain, had the key hit against Japan and has often set up Seung Yeop Lee while hitting out of the No. 2 spot. Korea's pitching has been its real strength as they have relied on Seo, Kim, Koo and Park for the crucial innings.
San Diego Outlook: Can Korea run the table against the world's best players? Frankly, it doesn't seem plausible that any team would go 8-0 in the tournament. That's particularly true of Korea's third matchup with a deeper, more talented Japanese team in the semifinal. Korea already beat its Asian rival twice in this tournament, both times by one run. As Japan manager Sadaharu Oh said, "So we have a saying in Japanese that third time truth would come. So we would love to have that third opportunity to fight against Korea one more time, and this time we would like to have a good win."