The World Baseball Classic has so far proven to be as exciting as any games we’re liable to see until September during the playoff push. Unfortunately for many fans, the scheduling and difficulty of following the action coupled with the timing as college basketball revs up for the NCAA tournament have made it tough to keep up. With the Detroit Tigers checking in as the best represented major league club, they have made their presence felt in the first round. We’ve been watching.
Apart from Team USA itself, loyalty steers us to the Venezuelan squad led by Miguel Cabrera and managed by Tigers first base coach Omar Vizquel. The Venezuelans came into the tournament with a lot of motivation to avenge their previous quick exits. Unfortunately, pitching continues to be their Achilles heel, making for a tough first round despite their stacked lineup. They were forced to rematch Team Italy in a controversial tie-breaker on Monday night, and came through by the skin of their teeth thanks to Cabrera’s heroics.
Cabrera and Victor Martinez had their moments in the first three games of Round 1, but none bigger than Cabrera’s solo shot in the top of the ninth to stave off elimination in the tie-breaker Monday night. The home run tied things at 2-2 and opened the door for Venezuela’s dramatic victory. Venezuela pushed across another pair of runs behind Cabrera, though sketchy baserunning squandered their chances of breaking the game wide open.
Tigers closer Francisco Rodriguez came on to close it out, but couldn’t avoid some drama. He hung a curveball to the first batter he saw, and Italy’s Alex Liddi promptly bombed it into the batter’s eye over the center field wall to bring the tying run to the plate with no outs. Rodriguez buckled down, and recovered to retire the next three in order to convert the save and send Venezuela into the second round.
Thus far, it has been a tough go in the tournament for Rodriguez. In the first game against Italy on Saturday night, the Tigers’ closer was called into a bases loaded jam in the tenth inning. He gave up a two-run single, but was able to corral a terrible relay throw from Alcides Escobar, getting it to catcher Salvador Perez in time to get the final out of the inning to keep the game tied. The Venezuelans scored the game winning run in the top of the eleventh and held on.
Rodriguez did have some new tricks up his sleeve, however. He mixed in his curveball a bit more than we saw last season, and was throwing his slow changeup as often as the harder version. The master of reinvention will be interesting to watch as always as the Venezuelan squad heads into Round 2.
Bruce Rondon didn’t see a whole lot of action in the tournament. The big right-hander pitched just one inning in Round 1. He surrendered a solo home run as one of two hits. He recorded one strikeout in the process.
Team Venezuela now enters a brutal second round bracket consisting of themselves, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the United States. Action gets underway Wednesday night as Venezuela takes on Team USA. Whoever comes out on top in the stacked Pool F has to be the favorite to win the tournament.
While Venezuela struggled, Team USA looked strong. Starters Chris Archer, Marcus Stroman and Danny Duffy were superb in Round 1. The trio combined for 12 2⁄3 innings of shutout ball in their three starts, allowing their teammates to run out to early leads. Team USA sandwiched a close loss to the Dominican Republic with wins over Columbia and Canada to earn their place in the second round with a 2-1 record.
As one would expect, Ian Kinsler made his mark for Team USA. The Tigers’ second baseman scored three runs, getting on base at a .357 clip. Kinsler chipped in three hits and also made several nice plays to back Team USA’s pitching staff. Alex Wilson was available out of Team USA’s bullpen, but his services weren’t utilized in Round 1. Michael Fulmer was scheduled to be in their pool of available pitching, but a slight ankle sprain kept him in Lakeland instead.
Team Puerto Rico was one of the favorites headed into this year’s WBC, and they haven’t disappointed. With an infield containing Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and Javier Baez, Puerto Rico has been strong offensively and defensively. They have also had Yadier Molina guiding a fine pitching staff. The Puerto Ricans rolled through Round 1, going 3-0 to advance.
The only Tigers player on hand is relief prospect Joe Jimenez. He only saw an inning of work, but his raw stuff was fully on display. Jimenez cracked a few bats with his fastball and showed off a dominant wipeout slider.
His command wasn’t great, but he escaped his inning of work with a strikeout after allowing a walk and a chopped single by Odubel Herrera that landed in no man’s land behind the mound. Throwing to Yadier Molina under tournament pressure is another nice bit of seasoning for the Tigers prospect most likely to make an impact in 2017.
Several Tigers minor league relievers also saw WBC action. For Team Canada, Dustin Molleken saw 1 1⁄3 innings of work, but surrendered a solo shot to go with a strikeout. William Cuevas, a Venezuelan reliever the Tigers acquired this offseason, pitched for Columbia, his mother’s homeland, but it went rather poorly. Cuevas was rocked for four earned runs in just 2 2⁄3 innings of work. Both nations were eliminated after the first round.
The Australian contingent of Tigers fared much better, though their team suffered the same fate and were eliminated after Round 1. Warwick Saupold spun four scoreless innings for Team Australia with a walk and four strikeouts. Meanwhile, Travis Blackley, also a Tigers’ farm hand, got a win in his start. Blackley tossed 4 2⁄3 innings against Team China, allowing just two hits to two strikeouts. The Australians hammered Chinese pitching en route to an 11-0 drubbing, their only win of the tournament.