Just how good is Japan's unbeaten WBC team?

I am not an expert on Japanese baseball, but after watching most of the World Baseball Classic games, conducting a little research and reading coverage on the internet -- including English-language coverage from Japan -- I’ve come to the following conclusions:

1. I have no idea whether this Japanese team is as strong as the teams that won the first two WBCs in 2006 and 2009.

2. This team absolutely can win its next two games and go undefeated in the tournament, as the Dominican Republic did in 2013.

Japan went 6-0 in the first two rounds, joining those Dominicans and the 2006 South Korea squad as the only teams to enter the semifinals without a loss. That’s impressive, but Japan played in two weak groups, with a Cuba team that has hemorrhaged talent to the major leagues in recent years, and caught a break when South Korea was knocked out in the first round. How good is Japan as we look to Tuesday’s semifinal game against the United States at Dodger Stadium? Team Japan keeps winning, but other than Nori Aoki, we can’t name a player on the team.

My hunch is that this team isn’t as good, based on a few factors:

Aoki has been hitting third: No offense, but Aoki is only a fringe MLB regular at this point, hitting .283/.349/.388 for the Seattle Mariners last season. If Aoki is hitting third, what does that say about the rest of the lineup? The 2006 and 2009 lineups featured an in-his-prime Ichiro Suzuki, former Chicago Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, former Tampa Bay Rays infielder Akinori Iwamura and a 20-something Aoki instead of a 35-year-old Aoki. The 2009 lineup added then-Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima. All those players had some level of success in the U.S. -- not that playing in the U.S. is the sole indicator of ability, but it does give us a better read on those players.

Is there an ace? The 2006 team featured Daisuke Matsuzaka, who allowed one run in four innings in the championship game against Cuba, a performance that helped lead to a big contract with the Boston Red Sox the following season. Matsuzaka’s career in the U.S. is viewed as a disappointment, but that’s a little unfair. Although he was infuriating to watch as he nibbled at the corners, he went 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA in 2007 (worth 4.1 WAR) and helped the Red Sox win the World Series. He followed that with an 18-3 record and 2.90 ERA in 2008 (5.3 WAR). Matsuzaka got hurt in 2009 -- after throwing 4 2/3 innings to help knock out the U.S. in the semifinals of the WBC -- and was never really healthy again. Koji Uehara, then a star starter in Japan, had pitched seven scoreless innings to beat South Korea in the 2006 semis.

Hisashi Iwakuma started the 2009 final against South Korea, allowing two runs in 7 2/3 innings, but that team also boasted a young Yu Darvish as its closer, and Masahiro Tanaka pitched an inning in relief against the U.S. With Matsuzaka, Darvish and Tanaka, the team had three pitchers who could match the best major leaguers in velocity -- again, not that velocity is everything, as Uehara and Iwakuma have had plenty of success in the U.S. while living off mediocre fastballs and great splitters.

Quality of competition: In the first round, Japan beat Cuba, Australia and China. In the second round, Japan beat the Netherlands, Israel and Cuba. That isn't exactly murderers' row. It took Japan 11 innings, with help from the extra-inning rule, to beat the Netherlands, the one team with some legit major league talent on the roster, and Cuba scored 11 runs in its two losses to Japan. This team simply hasn't faced a team that comes close to the depth of the U.S. lineup and pitching staff.

OK, enough with the negativity. Here are a few reasons Japan can win this thing:

Tomoyuki Sugano: Regarded as the second-best pitcher in Japan (behind Shohei Otani) after posting a 2.01 ERA for Yomiuri and striking out 189 batters in 183 1/3 innings, Sugano will start against the U.S. Although he struggled against Cuba in the second round, allowing seven hits and four runs in four innings, his track record in Japan is strong. The 27-year-old right-hander once clocked in the mid-90s, but he now sits at 91 with his fastball and reportedly throws seven pitches, including the proverbial forkball/splitter that so many Japanese pitchers possess.

Bullpen depth: The pen has allowed eight runs in 30 innings, with right-handers Ryo Akiyoshi, Yoshihisa Hirano and Kazuhisa Makita appearing in five of the six games so far. Manager Hiroki Kokubo will undoubtedly have a quick hook on Sugano if he isn't sharp and can mix and match out of the pen. He has submariners, sidearmers, junkballers, fireballers and everything in between to give the U.S. a variety of looks.

Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh is the big slugger in the lineup: Tsutsugoh is coming off a 44-homer season in the Nippon League, and his major league translation, courtesy of Dan Szymborski, is .284/.349/.498. He has been playing left field for Japan, though he might come out for defense late in the game. While I have no doubt that he can hit in the U.S., he looks very slow and might not have a position (he came up as a third baseman), so he probably isn’t a strong bet to come to MLB at some point. He does, however, have three home runs in this tournament.

Tetsuto Yamada at second base: Yamada is coming off a season in which he hit .304 with 38 home runs, 30 steals in 32 attempts and 97 walks in Japan. He has been DHing and leading off, with Ryosuke Kikuchi playing second and batting second. If Yamada can play second base -- he made just four errors in 141 games last season -- he looks like a player who could cross the Pacific with great success.

In Japan, the WBC is almost viewed as a national holiday. If Japan can win for the third time in four tournaments, you know they’ll be celebrating in the streets of Tokyo.

AP Photo/Toru Takahashi


World Baseball Classic scores, results, highlights: Puerto Rico tops Netherlands to reach championship game

Puerto Rico is heading back to the World Baseball Classic championship game. They beat the Netherlands 4-3 in 11 innings (box score) in their semifinal game at Dodger Stadium on Monday night to clinch a spot in the final. The Netherlands, meanwhile, is heading home. Puerto Rico is a perfect 7-0 in the WBC.

Puerto Rico answered right back courtesy of Carlos Correa’s two-run home run in the bottom of the first inning. They took a 3-2 lead on T.J. Rivera’s solo home run in the second inning, then the Netherlands rallied to tie in the fifth. Catcher Shawn Zarraga doubled in the tying run, and it would have been a two-run double had Puerto Rico not executed a perfect relay to the plate.

Here is Yadier Molina slapping the tag on Jonathan Schoop before he crossed the plate. He was called out during the live play and replay confirmed the call was correct.

The score remained tied 3-3 until the 11th inning, when the weird extra-inning rules kicked in. The Netherlands started the top of the 11th with runners on first and second, but failed to score thanks to a bunt and a double play. Puerto Rico then started the bottom of the 11th with runners on first and second. Molina bunted the runners up, Javier Baez was intentionally walked to set up the double play, and Eddie Rosario smacked a winning sac fly.

Tensions ran high in the late innings, as Edwin Diaz ran a fastball up near Balentien’s head in the 10th inning and the benches briefly cleared. There were no punches thrown or anything like that. Diaz rebounded to strike out Balentien and Schoop, then pounded his chest as he walked off the field. You can’t beat baseball like this in March, folks.

With the win, Puerto Rico returns to the WBC title game after finishing as the runner-up to the Dominican Republic in 2009. That team didn’t have Correa, Baez and Francisco Lindor on the infield, however. Puerto Rico will play the winner of Tuesday’s semifinal between the United States and Japan game in Wednesday’s winner-take-all championship game. Here’s how to watch the USA-Japan game .

The Netherlands, meanwhile, reached the semifinal for the second straight WBC, and they continue to do a little better each time around. They were knocked out in the first round in 2006, in the second round in 2009, and in the semifinals in 2013. This year they returned to the semifinals and played a much more competitive game than their 4-1 loss to the Dominican Republic in 2013. Dutch baseball is trending in a positive direction.


Will Profar's humbling 'GIF' moment in WBC slow roll he's on? 'Uh, no,' Jeff Banister says

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- He is the captain. The most respected player in the clubhouse and maybe one of the most respected in baseball.

And still on Tuesday, when Adrian Beltre returned to the Rangers after the Dominican Republic was eliminated from the World Baseball Classic, he found a funeral wreath at his locker with somebody (hint, hint: Elvis Andrus) offering mock respects for the dear departed Dominican team.

No telling what awaits Jurickson Profar.

Profar was at the center of an embarrassing -- and costly -- moment Monday night during an otherwise outstanding run in the WBC while playing for the Netherlands. Perhaps you've seen it by now. If not, you really need to get up to date on social media because you haven't really lived until you've been made into a GIF.

Profar was terribly GIF-worthy Monday. He singled to right in the middle of a burgeoning first-inning rally against Puerto Rico in the semifinals. He took the textbook wide turn at first. He tried to fire up the crowd at Dodger Stadium, exhorting fans in the stands behind first base to get into the moment. And then he was caught flat-footed, still a step off the base and thrown out by alert All-Star catcher Yadier Molina.

It only got worse after that. Teammate Wladimir Balentien followed with a two-run homer that should have been a three-run shot. Puerto Rico rallied to tie the game up in the bottom of the inning. The Puerto Ricans won in the 11th, 4-3 to advance to the finals.

"I just want to put this loss on myself," Profar told the Orange County Register. "I didn't play good enough for my team. ... In games like this, you make mistakes like that, you give the other team a chance. I made that mistake. I think we paid for it."

That is the backdrop under which Profar returns to Rangers camp. He hit .464 in the tournament with a 1.266 OPS, playing in all seven of the Netherlands games. He played center field, a previously foreign position, more than adequately. He spent two weeks getting instruction from future Hall of Famer Andruw Jones.

It was a most productive performance on a high-profile stage that only further underscored his value to the Rangers.

Until Monday.

The question now is if the burden of that blame will in any way stop the momentum he's built thus far. Rangers manager Jeff Banister has a thought. It goes like this: "Uh, no it won't."

More eloquently:
"Baseball is a humbling game," Banister said. "He got caught up in the moment. It happens. I'm sure there were a lot of range of emotions and thoughts that went through his head. But the thing that I know about really good and great players is the ability to move on, to not allow those things to linger emotionally and to allow those things to teach us lessons.

"It's important to stay focused and in the moment and not to let the moment overwhelm us so that we lose sight of things," he added. "The No. 1 rule of baseball when you are on the bases is: 'Don't lose sight of the baseball.' I don't think there will be any lingering effects. I think he learned a valuable lesson."

Banister doesn't intend to bring up the baserunning mistake with Profar. It happened when Profar was playing for another team, not the Rangers. End of story.

The manager of the Netherlands has already had that conversation. Or at least, he made his feelings very clear.
"Frustrating for me is the mental errors that we committed in the first inning on the bases," Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens said. "We talked to the guys before the game about the experience of Yadier Molina behind the plate and [how] he likes to throw to the bases. ... Then Jurickson getting the base hit, celebrating and not getting back to the base, that's unacceptable.

"The baserunning blunders cost us more runs in the first inning. That could have been the difference in the game."

Profar must live with that in the short term. If Beltre got a wreath, there is no telling what awaits Profar. There will be a point made, likely by his teammates, likely with good humor and likely with the message to not let the WBC results impact his contribution to the Rangers.

"That's the beauty of our clubhouse," Banister said. "That's why I don't think there will be a long-lasting lingering effect."

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