After three years of waiting, the World Baseball Classic is with us once again.Â Japan will start the defence of their title from 9.30 GMT against China, knowing that this year’s competition will be even stronger than the 2006 event.Â
The inaugural staging of the WBC was a great success, despite initially being treated with suspicion by many of our friends in the States.Â The passion and excitement generated by the games has meant that the next month’s action has been keenly anticipated by baseball fans around the world, with the hope that the sport can build on what was such a promising start.
The same sixteen teams that took part three years ago will compete in this year’s Classic; however, the tournament will be played under a slightly different structure this time around.Â A ‘double elimination’ competition will be in effect for the first two rounds, essentially making it a ‘two losses and you’re out’ affair during the group stages.Â Â
Leading up to the event, the media’s attention has naturally focused on the players who have opted out of the WBC.Â It’s certainly true that a significant number of top players have decided against competing for their country (for various reasons) and that this will obviously reduce the overall quality of the talent pool.Â
However, even just a quick glance at the rosters will tell you that there are some extremely good teams involved, along with a healthy helping of star power as well.Â There’s no doubt that once the games begin, everyone will be too busy enjoying the baseball to worry too much about the players that are ambling through Spring Training games instead.
First Round Predictions
Of the sixteen participants, five stand out as being the most likely to make up the semi-final spots.Â One of Korea, Cuba, Japan, the U.S. and the Dominican Republic will definitely have to fall short of the minimum finish they would expect from the tournament.Â It’s difficult to predict which team will miss out at this stage, so I’ll concentrate on the first round for now.
Korea and Japan would expect to progress into round two out of Pool A, although Chinese Taipei are capable of causing an upset along the way.Â Cuba and Mexico should make it through Pool B despite the undoubted fight that Australia and South Africa, two proud sporting nations, will put up.
Italy have a tough task to make an impression in Pool C (although their victory over the Marlins yesterday willÂ boost theirÂ confidence), leaving the U.S., Canada and Venezuela to battle for the top two spots.Â While the latter will badly miss Johan Santana, any team that includes players like Felix Hernandez, Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez is going to be a formidable opponent.Â Canada have a solid looking roster, while the U.S. should finish top if their array of talent can pull together.Â The U.S. and Venezuela are my picks here.
As for Pool D, the Netherlands have been dealt a tough draw in facing the intimidating Dominican Republic team in their first game.Â If they can at least put in a good performance in their opening fixture, there is hope that Europe’s top team might make it through to round two.Â Puerto Rico will be their main challenger, with Panama being an unknown quantity.Â I’m going to be positive and state that the Netherlands will scrape through with the Dominican Republic.
The opening games
The tournament begins in Japan, where the Pool A games will be staged in the Tokyo Dome.Â China will face the hosts today with the first pitch scheduled forÂ 9.30 (GMT).Â Japan are clear favourites to win the game, but don’t rule out China completely.Â
The Olympic champions, Korea, get their WBC underway on Friday as they take on Chinese Taipei (9.30).Â
Due to the way the tournament is structured, we will only know the lineup for the next games from Pool A once the first two have been played.Â The two losers from the first games will play each other in what amounts to a sudden death game at 3.30 in the morning on Saturday.Â Most probably this will be China against Chinese Taipei.
If so, Japan and Korea will renew their rivalry in what should be a gripping Saturday morning showdown (first pitch 10.00).
MLB.tv subscribers can watch all of the games live under their regular season subscription and will also be able to watch them after the event via the ‘archives’ section.Â While U.S. citizens will be blacked out for the semi-finals and final, Brits can watch all of the games without any restrictions.
ESPN America will be broadcasting thirty-four games as well, with live screenings joined by re-showings at more convenient times.Â For example, today’s China-Japan game is being shown live and there will then be a two and a half hour presentation at 19.00.Â ESPN America is, of course, the new name for NASN and is available to British viewers as part of the Setanta Sports Package.Â Their schedule of WBC games can be found here.
Let’s get it started …!
The Tokyo Dome will be a cauldron of noise as Japan’s starter Yu Darvish takes the mound to begin the 2009 World Baseball Classic.Â With so much to play for, it promises to be a fantastic event.