What you need to know for the World Baseball Classic semis


Puerto Rico fans are thrilled to see their team in the World Baseball Classic final four. Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports

There is another "final four" that has taken shape, as the table is set for the finale of what has been an exciting and highly competitive World Baseball Classic. The United States, Netherlands, Japan and Puerto Rico will face off over the next three days to determine a new champion, as the defending champion Dominican Republic club was sent home after a thrilling contest against Team USA Saturday night.

When the tournament began two weeks ago, the viability of the WBC as an institution was somewhat up in the air. However, after a thrilling tournament that has hit on all levels, whether it be the favorites packing stadiums in both the United States and Japan or the unexpected rise of Israel, the World Baseball Classic has shown its potential as it prepares to round third and head home this Wednesday night in Los Angeles.

So how does it all stand to shake out? With round-robin play concluded, it is do-or-die from here on out, so the stakes are highest now. Let’s have a look at the ins-and-outs of the remaining teams and where the edge could be achieved in setting the table for Wednesday’s championship game.

Netherlands vs. Puerto Rico (9 p.m. ET, Monday) 


Wladimir Balentien and the Netherlands take on Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic semifinals. Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press

The overview

The semifinal round kicks off Monday night with the Pool E runner-up Netherlands (5-1) taking on the champion of Pool F Puerto Rico (6-0). While the Japan/USA matchup is the "main event" of the two contests in the semis, this game stands to be the most hotly contested. Puerto Rico has been the most dominant team in the field thus far, outscoring opponents 51-15 thus far, including victories over the United States, Dominican Republic and outscoring Venezuela 24-2 in two matchups.

Meanwhile, while the Netherlands enter with a single blemish on their record, they have been playing undeniably strong since that extra-innings loss to Japan eight days ago. Since then, they rebounded by defeating Israel 12-2 and Cuba 14-1.

Taking the ball 

Puerto Rico will send Jorge Lopez to the mound, who allowed two hits over 4.1 innings in his only outing thus far in the tournament. The 24-year-old Milwaukee Brewers prospect struck out five, while walking two in PR’s 9-4 victory over Mexico last Sunday.

The Netherlands will counter with Rick Van den Hurk, who has been touched up some thus far in the tournament. Over two starts, he worked to a 6.43 ERA and allowed 10 hits while striking out four in outings against Korea and Japan. He’ll need to put that rough outing against the Japanese behind him with a relentless Puerto Rican lineup awaiting. 

Players to watch 


Puerto Rico catcher Yadier Molina has been key in Puero Rico's World Baseball Classic run thus far. Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports

The Puerto Rico lineup is clicking on all cylinders thus far, getting high-level contributions from veterans and youth alike. Carlos Beltran is leading the club with a .471 average (8-for-17), along with five runs batted in, while Yadier Molina’s inspired play both behind the plate and at bat (.353 average) has been invaluable. The team’s trio of talented young infielders — Carlos Correa, Javy Baez and Francisco Lindor — has delivered on its reputation thus far as well, hitting a combined .351 for the tournament, and those three have scored nearly 40 percent of the team’s runs.

For the Netherlands, the lead has been set for them thus far by Wladimir Balentien, an outfielder who makes his professional home in Japan’s Nippon Professional league. He is hitting a WBC-best .591 thus far and is tied for the home run lead with three as well. Hot on his heels is Texas Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar, who is hitting .522 with five doubles. The presence of Xander Bogaerts, Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons and Jonathan Schoop in the lineup provides a surplus of talents that can change the game at a moment’s notice, despite slightly underperforming thus far.

The Netherlands will also be set to receive a boost in the form of Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who will join his countrymen for the first time in the championship round.

Prediction time 

Puerto Rico has been awfully good thus far and is playing with that "it" factor that comes from its unmatched combination of talent, chemistry and experience. If the Puerto Ricans can get to Van den Hurk early on, and avoid having to face Jansen with their backs against the wall, they should move on to their second consecutive WBC championship game.

United States vs. Japan (9 p.m. ET, Tuesday) 


Yoshitomo Tsutsugo has hit three home runs for Japan in the World Baseball Classic. Koji Sasahara/Associated Press

The overview 

For the first time, the United States (4-2) has advanced to the championship round of the WBC and is tasked with facing the nation that has had the most success in the history of the Classic, Japan (6-0). Japan is 4-for-4 in making it to the WBC semis, winning it in 2006 and 2009 and placing third in 2013. It's also a meeting of two of the most prominent baseball cultures in the world and a clash of stars of the two biggest leagues in the world, Major League Baseball and the Nippon Professional Baseball League. Team USA’s roster is comprised entirely of MLB talents, while 99 percent of Japan is from the NPB, with the one exception being MLBer Nori Aoki.

The United States is coming in with the momentum of a thrilling victory in which they dispatched the sitting champion Dominican Republic team behind the heroics of Adam Jones and Giancarlo Stanton. The U.S. team has had to rely on steady dose of perseverance thus far and still has not had that absolutely dominant game. Meanwhile, the Japanese club has been consistent every time out, posting eight runs in each of its Pool D games.

Taking the ball 

Washington Nationals hurler Tanner Roark will take the ball on Tuesday night. He made his last start March 11 against the Dominican Republic, when he allowed three runs in 1 ⅓ innings. Roark had a breakout performance in 2016, winning 16 games and working 210 innings. His 2.83 ERA was sixth in the National League last season. 

Without a handful of its foremost stars on its WBC roster, Japan’s starting pitching has been somewhat soft thus far. The Japanese have allowed five runs in three games and were touched up more in the second round than first. The U.S. roster will be by far the best Japan has faced yet, so the opus could fall on the Japanese offense to carry the weight of the pitching.

Players to watch


Adam Jones has been clutch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports

All of the familiar names are present for the U.S., and while the timely hitting of Jones and Stanton has been huge, Brandon Crawford (.444 average) and Eric Hosmer (.381) have handled the majority of the production for Team USA. With only one promised game left, they are still waiting for Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt to arrive. Billed as the cornerstones of the USA roster, they have combined for only four hits over 45 at-bats.

With Chris Archer returning to Rays camp, Giants closer Mark Melancon will join Team USA on Tuesday and likely move directly into carrying final frame responsibilities.

For Japan, while the pitching has left something to be desired, the lineup has been unrelenting. Six players in the Japanese lineup are hitting over .320 in the WBC, and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Sho Nakata and Tetsuto Yamada have combined to hit eight home runs. Tsutsugo and Nakata each have connected for three home runs thus far. If the Japanese lineup gets rolling and produces its pounding style of first-to-third baseball, and adds in its touch of power, they can easily hit with the American team.

Prediction time 

This is a major highlight event for the tournament with two of the most engaged fan bases in the world pitted against each other. The U.S. team has consistently drawn huge crowds for its games thus far, while an estimated 30 percent of televisions in Japan have been tuned in to follow their national team. This is the type of game that can carry the WBC to the next level of national prominence in the States.

As for on the field, it comes down to if Team USA can get a coordinated effort from its lineup. Japan will hit and put the pressure on early, but with the U.S. coming in off an emotional high and carrying the confidence of beating the stacked Dominican team, it is hard to see them coming back to Earth now in Dodger Stadium. It should be a tight game, but the U.S.’s knack for the clutch moment should help them to land their first championship appearance.

Matt Whitener is St. Louis-based writer, radio host and 12-6 curveball enthusiast. He has been covering Major League Baseball since 2010, and dabbles in WWE, NBA and other odd jobs as well. Follow Matt on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

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