This March, people around the world have been tuning into an exciting tournament full of great players, upsets, passionate fanhood, and superstar performances, as players from across the globe compete to be the best team in the world. I, of course, am talking about the World Baseball Classic (WBC). The premier international competition of baseball is often overlooked by a lot of the sports-watching public. However, this year’s competition, coming on the heels of a historic World Series that concluded with the most-watched baseball game in 25 years, has brought baseball back with a bang this spring.
The WBC matches up 16 teams in four pools that compete in South Korea, Japan, Mexico, and the United States. In order to qualify, teams must either finish in the top three in their pool at the previous WBC, which was held in 2013, or teams must win a qualifying tournament held prior to the start of the WBC. This allows newcomers to have access to the tournament while keeping around the traditional powers of international baseball. This year, Colombia and Israel made their first appearances in the tournament.
The MLB founded and heavily promotes the WBC with the goal of spreading baseball around the world, and this goal has shaped the rules of roster eligibility for national teams. Players can be a citizen, be eligible for a passport, be born within the borders, or simply have parental heritage in the nation that they play for. This allows nations that do not have a strong basis in baseball development to still field competitive rosters, with the goal of increasing interest in the sport within the nation’s borders. For example, the Netherlands’ roster is full of players from their Caribbean constituent nations, such as Aruba native and Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, and Israel’s roster is full of Jewish-Americans like White Sox pitcher Brad Goldberg.
The first round of action brought some surprises. In Pool A, Israel was the surprise champion, going 3-0. The Netherlands followed behind, finishing 2-1, with their sole defeat coming to Israel. South Korea was eliminated, coming as a shock to the baseball world. They were the runner-up in the 2009 WBC, were the third ranked team in the world, and were playing all their games in the home nation. Chinese Taipei, the fourth ranked team in the world, lost all of their games and were eliminated as well.
Pool B was relatively devoid of surprises. Two-time champion Japan swept their pool, and former Olympic powerhouse Cuba finished behind them at 2-1. Newcomer Australia managed their first WBC win, and China went winless in the pool.
Pool C featured some exciting baseball and was a hard-fought opening round. The defending champion Dominican Republic went 3-0, but their pool victory did not come easily. They were down 5-0 against the United States in the sixth inning before rallying and winning 7-5. Against Colombia, they nearly lost on a walk-off, but outfielder Jose Bautista threw out Colombia runner Oscar Mercado at the plate as he tried to score on a flyout, sending the game into extra-innings. In extras, the Dominican Republic scored 7 runs in the 11th inning to seal their win and advance to the next round. Colombia also came close to defeating the United States, but the US pulled out a win with an Adam Jones walk-off single. The US advanced to the next round with a 2-1 record, and Canada was eliminated along with Colombia.
Pool D came down to a controversial finish. Puerto Rico was the unquestioned champion, sweeping the competition in a decisive manner. However, Venezuela, Mexico, and Italy all finished 1-2, so to decide which two teams advanced to a play-in game, a tiebreaker of runs allowed per inning played was used. Mexico believed that a win against Venezuela by more than one would be sufficient to advance; however, they were mistaken in the math calculating the tiebreaker. In their opening game against Italy, they failed to record any outs in the bottom of the ninth, and allowed five runs. They believed this counted as an inning played, but instead, it was scored as five runs scored without an additional inning completed. This pushed their runs per inning above Venezuela, and they were therefore eliminated. As a result, Adrian Gonzalez, one of Mexico’s best players, said that he would never play in another WBC. Venezuela and Italy played a tiebreaking game and Venezuela won, allowing them to advance.
In the second round, in Pool E, Japan and the Netherlands rolled through their competition, finishing 3-0 and 2-1, respectively. Israel’s Cinderella run ended, as they finished 1-2, and Cuba was also eliminated after losing all of their second-round games.
The other second round group, Pool F, was more closely competed. Puerto Rico was the champion, finishing 3-0, although not without close calls. Against the US, Puerto Rico held a three-run lead heading into the top of the ninth, but a two-out Brandon Crawford triple brought the US within one run. However, the US’s Josh Harrison struck out to end the game, sealing the win for Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico also ended the Dominican Republic’s eight game winning streak, which set up a decisive United States-Dominican Republic finale. The US, in, perhaps, their biggest win in international baseball history, shocked the star-studded Dominican Republic team 6-3, allowing them to advance to the semi-finals.
The semi-finals featured two thrilling contests. The first game, featuring Puerto Rico and the Netherlands, was an extra-innings classic that ended in a rather anti-climatic fashion due to the WBC extra innings rules, which start every inning after the 10th with runners on first and second base. Puerto Rico was able to execute small ball in the bottom half of the 11th, as they started the inning off with a sacrifice bunt, followed by an intentional walk, and ended with a walk-off sacrifice fly. The second game featuring the US and Japan was a battle against the elements, as both teams had to deal with the rare Los Angeles rainstorm. The US took advantage of the soggy conditions, and scored both of their runs as a result of the soaked field. Two runs were enough for the win, and the US was able to advance to their first WBC final.
The finale looks like it will live up to all of the hype the preceding games have brought. Right now, Vegas gives the slight edge to Puerto Rico, who seem to deserve it. Will Puerto Rico win one more game and complete a sweep of the whole WBC? Or will the US finally silence the critics and win their first title? We’ll see what happens on Wednesday night, but I think the US will be able to pull out the win and make their country proud.