The group stage of the World Baseball Classic has come to a close, leaving four teams from Pools C & D battling for spots in the semifinals.
The World Baseball Classic did not disappoint in the group stage. Filled with shocking upsets, heartwarming stories, exciting narratives, and intensely enthusiastic fanbases, the Classic is now down to six. Pools A & B, the groups whose games have been played in Taipei and Tokyo, concluded their quarterfinals, with Cuba and Japan advancing. Over the next two days, Friday and Saturday, Pools C & D will match up. The stacked rosters of Team USA and the Dominican Republic came into the WBC with a monopoly on the predictions for their respective pools, but they both found themselves fighting for their tournament lives in their final game, and the DR was even knocked out.
Pool C Winner – Mexico
Team Mexico opened the World Baseball Classic with a disheartening extra innings loss to Colombia. They followed it with three wins and clinched the Pool C title. While their shocking 11-5 domination of Team USA highlighted their group stage, their next two were just as important: a closely contested 2-1 pitching masterclass over Great Britain and an intense win-and-in matchup against Canada, in which Mexico prevailed 10-3.
Randy Arozarena emerged as the superstar, collecting 9 RBIs and a dinger, but it’s impossible to forget Joey Meneses’ legendary two-homer game against Team USA. Taijuan Walker gave a scoreless four-inning performance that put Mexico in a good position to beat the Brits, a game in which Alexis Wilson, initially rostered as the bullpen catcher, drove in both runs. Alex Verdugo and Luis Urías, both established major leaguers, struggled in the group stage and will need to step up for Mexico to make a run at the championship.
Mexico’s starter in the quarterfinal game will be Dodgers standout Julio Urías, who will hope to improve on a shaky outing against Colombia in which he gave up three runs over five innings. He will have his work cut out for him, though, against a Puerto Rican team hitting their stride.
Pool C Runner-Up – Team USA
Team USA commanded plenty of hype for its GOAT-level lineup, but they nearly failed to launch. After a comfortable but lackluster 6-2 opening win over Great Britain, they were utterly dismantled 11-5 by their neighbor to the south. With the looming prospect of elimination in pool play for the first time in World Baseball Classic history, the batters finally let loose against Canada, showing off in a 12-1 mercy rule victory.
The Americans got a bit lucky with the results of games that didn’t involve them, and their 2-1 record entering the final game set them up with relatively easy parameters for qualification: don’t lose by three or more to Colombia, and don’t give up an ungodly number of runs. Against a team that had slipped out of serious contention after upsetting Mexico, Team USA performed just well enough with a comeback 3-2 win. For a team of such stupefying talent, their offensive and pitching performances have been rather unintimidating. Compared to the infectious gusto of their competitors, the baseball representatives of the United States didn’t look enthusiastic to start. But when they needed to step up, Team USA could get a rally going and the dugout cheering.
Who Shows Up for the United States?
Mike Trout looked the part as Captain America, hitting a bomb and knocking in all of the USA’s runs against Colombia. Tim Anderson put up good numbers as well, offering a strong argument for starting in the elimination stage. With survival in the WBC on the line in every game, manager Mark DeRosa will start the players who are at their best at this moment. That puts Pete Alonso, Kyle Schwarber, who went deep in the opener, and other non-MVPs at risk of losing reps. DeRosa seems to trust his top four of Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, and Nolan Arenado, in order, but after that, it’s anyone’s game.
Adam Wainwright took the ball to open the Americans’ WBC and delivered (1 ER over 4 IP), so he could be in line to get the start against the Pool D winner, Venezuela (though neither team has announced a starter yet). Judging by roster alone, Team USA looks like the best team remaining. But if you judge performance so far, the Americans probably aren’t even in the top half of the teams remaining. The potential is there, but execution is lagging behind.
Pool D Winner – Venezuela
The Dominican Republic had such a stacked lineup that we somehow forgot all about the Venezuelan team, which has Ronald Acuña Jr., Jose Altuve, Luis Arraez, David Peralta, and Miguel Cabrera among many more spirited contributors. They established themselves early, shocking the DR 5-1 on Pool D’s opening night behind Peralta’s clutch 3 RBIs. They never took their foot off the pedal, handily defeating Puerto Rico, Israel, and Nicaragua en route to the only perfect record in the World Baseball Classic, other than the equally dominant Japanese team. While Japan has stomped through the Tokyo Dome like a giant fire-breathing lizard, winning every game by at least six runs, Venezuela faced a tougher set of opponents and took each down.
Salvador Perez had a monster game against Puerto Rico, crossing the plate three times and racking up four hits, five RBIs, two doubles, and a home run. Longtime Oriole Anthony Santander also put up good stats throughout the group stage, but some of the biggest names on the roster, Altuve, Arraez, and Acuña Jr., haven’t taken off. Although Venezuela got the job done without a lot of their help, the remaining teams, including their quarterfinal matchup the United States, might demand more.
Martín Pérez put up a valiant effort against the stacked Dominican Republic lineup, holding them to one run across 3⅓ innings pitched. The United States boasts a similarly loaded roster, so Venezuela would be thrilled to get more of the same from Pérez.
Pool D Runner-Up – Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico took down outmatched Nicaragua in their first game, but they looked all out of sorts against Venezuela. They rediscovered their stride after mercy ruling Israel 10-0 (and pitching an 8-inning perfecto), but all signs pointed in favor of the Dominican Republic, which had gotten hot coming into the Pool D finale, a win-or-go-home game with their Caribbean neighbor. Throughout the game, it couldn’t have gone better for PR, scoring four in the third inning, adding another on an inside-the-park home run from Francisco Lindor, and setting up Edwin Díaz to slam the door with three consecutive strikeouts.
After the game, it couldn’t have gone worse. Díaz badly injured himself in celebration and had to be wheelchaired off the field. All the exuberance of the Puerto Ricans, after stunning and knocking out the World Baseball Classic favorite, disappeared. News later broke that Díaz tore the patellar tendon in his right knee, forcing him to get surgery and likely miss all of 2023. It’s a heartbreaking development for the WBC, Team Puerto Rico, the New York Mets, the Díaz family, and the entire baseball community. Díaz will be back to his signature “Narco” hype track before we know it, but in the meantime, it’s a tough blow to everybody involved.
How Does Puerto Rico Regroup?
The Puerto Ricans will have to gather themselves quickly, as they still have a good shot to take home a championship in Díaz’s honor. Francisco Lindor, in the leadoff spot, propelled the offense with 5 RBIs and a .467 batting average. He got help from Kiké Hernández, touching home four times and batting three fellow Puerto Ricans in, and Christian Vázquez, who broke the scoreless tie with a homer against the DR. José De León faced 17 batters and retired all 17 in his start against Israel. He should continue to dominate if he pitches again.
Matched up against Mexico and Julio Urías in the quarters, Puerto Rico will likely send out their first starter, Marcus Stroman. Stroman hurled 4⅔ innings of one-run ball against Nicaragua, but the Mexican lineup is significantly more experienced than Nicaragua’s and should give Stroman a run for his money.
World Baseball Classic Matchups and Predictions
At 7 pm ET on Friday, Puerto Rico will play visitors to Mexico in what, according to the betting odds, is a complete toss-up. Mexico is coming off three consecutive wins, but Puerto Rico just dominated a seemingly unbeatable Dominican Republic team. Ultimately, I think Team Puerto Rico will have some trouble keeping their stride after the loss of Díaz, and Urías will shut them down for a good portion of the game with pitch limits increased to 80. Mexico continues to roll. My projection: Mexico 7, Puerto Rico 4.
The winner of this matchup faces the tall task of downing Japan, but there’s a ray of light for them in that Shohei Ohtani, under the instruction of Angels manager Phil Nevin, will not pitch for the remainder of the tournament.
At the same time Saturday, Venezuela will host Team USA. It’s hard to bet against this Venezuelan team right now, but the Americans seem to have too much talent to go out before the semis. I think Venezuela jumps on a rusty Wainwright, while Pérez controls a sluggish United States lineup. However, with the tournament on the line, I see the American stars emerging through adversity and confirming all the pre-competition hype. My projection: United States 5, Venezuela 3.
After what will surely be an exciting game, either Team USA or Venezuela will try to take down upstart Cuba. Cuba lost their first two games of pool play and seemed headed for an early exit, but they’ve rebounded spectacularly, winning three straight. Allowing defectors to participate for the first time in the Classic’s history, Cuba has its eyes set on its first WBC win. With the playing field down to six, anything can happen!
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