Final four teams ready for Classic finish

By John Schlegel
Updated: March 20, 2009

NEW YORK — It started on Tokyo time. The party raged on in San Juan and Mexico City. It brought sports fans to their feet in Toronto in the middle of March without the benefit of a single puck.

There was drama in Miami, and there was history in San Diego.

Now batting: Los Angeles.

The World Baseball Classic has played out around the globe for a second time now, and the 2009 version has made its mark on baseball’s springtime landscape in some ways the inaugural edition of the tournament, held three years prior, didn’t or couldn’t.

Already, 36 games have been played. An underdog has risen and fallen. Powerful teams have come and gone. Elimination has been staved off, and it has enveloped others in surprising and sudden ways.

It’s down to four teams, three games and one champion to be crowned.

Japan, the 2006 winner, and rival Korea advanced from San Diego’s Pool 1. The United States and Venezuela join them, having emerged from Miami’s Pool 2.

As they gather together at Dodger Stadium this weekend, they’re proving just how the world has become one big pool of talent for the game of baseball.

“People ask if they draft 1,500 guys in America each year, how come 40 percent are international players? This is why,” said Hall of Famer and Padres executive Dave Winfield, who threw out a ceremonial first pitch at Petco Park on Thursday night. “This is the talent of the world that you see. Each country has a lot of pride, so there is pretty good competition.”

That the world will descend upon Dodger Stadium for this occasion is fitting, in that the organization that plays there and the venue itself have been party to many instances of broadening baseball’s horizons. From Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn to Fernando Valenzuela to Hideo Nomo in L.A., no other Major League organization has attained as many milestones of progress when it comes to opening the game to the world.

In a four-day weekend that began with team workouts Friday, the world will be coming to Dodger Stadium. Venezuela will take on Korea in the first semifinal at 9 p.m. ET Saturday. Then Team USA will make its Classic semifinal debut against defending champion Japan at 8 p.m. ET Sunday.

The victors of those games will meet for the World Baseball Classic title at 9 p.m. ET Monday night at Dodger Stadium.

The 2006 Classic saw Japan defeat Cuba in the final, following victories over Korea and the Dominican Republic, respectively.

It became clear early in the 2009 Classic that things were going to be a little different this time. For one, China — outscored handily in three losses the first time around — won a game and competed with its more powerful neighbors. But that quickly became a footnote, because the Dutch upset the Dominican Republic and then did the only thing they could have done to top it — they did it again to advance to the second round.

Along the way to Los Angeles, Team USA staged a memorable ninth-inning comeback against Puerto Rico for a 6-5 victory that clinched a semifinal berth and set off a wild dogpile on the field at Dolphin Stadium. And, in clinching a spot to defend its title, Japan ousted Cuba, ending an incredible string of success in international play — this is the first tournament in more than 50 years in which Cuba was unable to reach the finals.

Venezuela comes in having best displayed an entire package through the early rounds, going 6-1 with a lineup studded with All-Stars, a rotation headed by Felix Hernandez and Carlos Silva, and closer Francisco Rodriguez dealing a pair of four-out saves so far.

“We have good chemistry, and no matter who we play, we will come out and play 150 percent and find a way to win,” said veteran catcher Henry Blanco.

Meanwhile, Korea and Japan each wound up with 5-2 marks, both their losses coming against each other, while the U.S. managed to get into the final round with a 4-3 record, losing twice to Venezuela but avenging an earlier loss to Puerto Rico with the thriller in Miami on Tuesday.

Team USA’s well-documented problem has been keeping players not just on the field but on the roster. While the addition of third baseman Evan Longoria to replace Chipper Jones brings a young, healthy body to the mix, the Americans still have injury issues to overcome.

Now Japan does as well. First baseman Shuichi Murata pulled his right hamstring, pulling up and grabbing at the back of his right leg after hitting a single to right field in Thursday’s pool-winning 6-2 victory over Korea. Japan’s main power threat, Murata was assisted off the field and will be out for the rest of the tournament.

The Samurai — as Team Japan is known at home — will of course soldier on, fully aware of the honor that comes from defending one’s world title. Their first step will come against the U.S., which has a four-game winning streak against Japan dating back to the second round of the 2006 Classic.

Japan manager Tatsunori Hara, for one, can’t wait.

“We need to catch up with the Major Leagues, and we need to go beyond that, and that was the education and the circumstances of how I played baseball. That was my baseball,” said Hara, who said he first heard about American baseball when as a child he read a book about Babe Ruth.

“I have a great deal of respect for American baseball. And here is a great opportunity right in front of me, and I am so excited about that.”