The 6 biggest Classic storylines left to follow
After Japan’s 9-3 victory on Thursday, joining Cuba in the World Baseball Classic semifinals, the tournament now has only six teams left.
On Friday night Mexico will play Puerto Rico in Miami for the right to play Japan on Monday, and then on Saturday the United States will square off against Venezuela (also in Miami) with the winner facing Cuba on Sunday.
Long story short: This thing is coming down to the wire now. It only gets more fun from here.
So, to reset before the weekend’s action, here’s a look at the major storyline for each of the six teams remaining.
Puerto Rico: Can they recover from the devastating Díaz injury?
Up until the moment Edwin Díaz collapsed underneath several of his celebrating countrymen, Puerto Rico had to think that maybe this was their year. After two consecutive second-place finishes in the WBC, the team this year had thrown a perfect game, knocked out the vaunted Dominican Republic team and set up a fascinating matchup with Mexico for the right to go to the semifinals. It was noteworthy how well manager Yadier Molina, a man long thought to be managerial material but doing this for the first time, had set up his bullpen and roster; it was all going exactly to plan. And then Díaz went down. That’s obviously going to be a problem for the Mets, but it’s a problem for Puerto Rico too, and not just because the team is now down its closer. How does a team rebound emotionally from such whiplash? They have roughly 40 hours to figure it out.
Mexico: Is Randy Arozarena on another one of his heaters?
Randy Arozarena has established himself as an impressive MLB regular with the Rays -- he did win the AL Rookie of the Year award a couple of years ago, after all -- but he’ll forever be known for his 2020 postseason, when he basically turned into Babe Ruth and carried the Rays into the World Series. It sure looks like he’s back at it again in the WBC. He is tied with Japan’s Masataka Yoshida for most RBIs in the tournament (9), and is only three RBIs behind the all-time record of 12, held by Wladimir Balentien (2017 Classic). He’s already become a clear folk hero in Mexico, and a trip to the semifinals could elevate him to legendary status. There may be nothing scarier than Arozarena in a short series.
Venezuela: Is Miggy going to go out a champion?
Only two teams have been undefeated in the WBC so far: The white-hot sensation that is the Japanese team, and the Venezuelan team, which only made it to the semifinals once, back in 2009. That team featured Magglio Ordonez, Bobby Abreu, Francisco Rodriguez, Endy Chavez, Felix Hernandez and … Miguel Cabrera, who, 14 years later, is captain of the team. He is also, as you might have heard, about to play his final season in the Majors, which means he’s got the opportunity to bookend his career: A World Series title with the Marlins in his rookie season in 2003 and a WBC title with Venezuela in 2023. He has only played two games in the Classic so far, going 1-for-9, but he’ll definitely have the opportunity to finish off his career in style.
United States: Is Trout going to carry the USA all the way?
This is Mike Trout’s first WBC -- after missing the 2017 championship, something he still regrets -- and he is making the most of it. The team captain is hitting .417 and has a homer and six RBIs, looking for all the world like a guy who is absolutely elated, after eight years away from high-stakes elimination baseball, to play under some legitimate pressure. I’ve argued that this could end up being The Year of Trout, and there’d be no better way to kick that off than with Trout winning a WBC for the United States. He looks for all the world like a man on a mission. It’s something to see.
Cuba: Is this team -- the first one with MLB players -- the one that finally breaks through?
Back in 2006, the Cuban team, which because of Cuban’s political situation at the time, had a roster full of players almost no one knew outside the country, finished second to Japan in the first World Baseball Classic. (Future Major Leaguers on that team included Yuli Gurriel and Alexei Ramirez.) This year’s team, which, for the first time, features players both from Cuban leagues and Major League Baseball (most notably Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert Jr.), is back in the semifinals for the first time since 2006. They have hardly been dominant in this tournament -- they were part of that five-team scrum at 2-2 in Group A -- but it doesn’t matter what you’ve done so far: All Cuba has to do is win two games in a row, and they will make history as only the fourth country to win the World Baseball Classic.
Japan: Can this team be stopped?
Is it possible this Japanese team has the most dominant team in WBC history? They’re undefeated in five games, sure, but they’ve absolutely trounced their opponents, outscoring them 47-11. They’ve got the most electric player on the planet in Shohei Ohtani, they have a folk hero (who also is putting up a .522 OBP) in Lars Nootbaar (the first non-Japanese-born player on their roster), they’ve got a lineup full of mashers and, oh yeah, they’re even stealing more bases than anybody else in the tournament. They’ve also been a riveting watch from start to finish, thanks to Tokyo Dome fans who clearly live and die with their home country’s team. Can they bring all the joy with them on the flight to Miami? If Japan can win these last two games, they’ll have won three of the five World Baseball Classics. But when they talk about the best Japanese teams … I bet they’ll talk about this one.