By Cliff Corcoran
The 2017 World Baseball Classic has reached its final destination as the four teams to survive second-round play descend upon Dodger Stadium this week for three games to decide a champion. Having wrapped up second-round play on Wednesday, the two teams from Pool E in Tokyo, Japan and the Netherlands, have been holding workouts in Phoenix, acclimating to the change in time zone and staying sharp with exhibition games against Major League clubs. Meanwhile, the two teams from Pool F, Puerto Rico and Team USA, have remained in the heat of battle, with the United States eliminating the defending champion Dominican Republic on Saturday night, providing the only change in this year's final four from 2013's, which also included Puerto Rico, Japan and the Netherlands. Here's what you need to know.
Semifinal 1: Netherlands @ Puerto Rico, Monday, 9 p.m. ET (MLB Network and MLB.TV)
Semifinal 2: U.S.A. @ Japan, Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET (MLB Network and MLB.TV)
Final: Semifinal 2 winner @ Semifinal 1 winner, Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET (MLB Network and MLB.TV)
There are three rule changes in this round. The first is that there will be full replay review according to Major League Baseball's regular-season rules, with the exception of manager challenges The second is that the mercy rule will no longer be in effect. The third is that the pitch limit has increased to 95 pitches. However, pitchers who throw 50 or more pitches in a semifinal will still be ineligible to pitch in the final. The same is true for pitchers who throw 30 or more pitches in Tuesday's semifinal, as they will require a day of rest and the final is the next day. The runners-on-base rule for the 11th inning and beyond remains in effect.
Tournament record: 4-2
Round 2 runs scored/allowed per game: 10.7/3.7
Tournament run differential: +25
Unofficial MVP: Wladimir Balentien, RF (.591/.654/1.00, 13-for-22, 3 HR, 10 RBIs, 8 R, 4 BB)
Top pitcher: Diegomar Markwell (1-0, 1.04 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8 2/3 IP, 3 G, 1 GS)
SS Andrelton Simmons (R)
3B Xander Bogaerts (R)
CF Jurickson Profar (S)
RF Wladimir Balentien (R)
DH Didi Gregorius (L)
2B Jonathan Schoop (R)
C Shawn Zarraga (S)
1B Yurendell de Caster (R)
LF Kalian Sams (R)
Other than the Netherlands' 11-inning loss to Japan in the second round, its only other loss in this tournament was what amounted to a seeding game against Israel to end the first round in Seoul. Both teams had secured second-round berths prior to that game and the game itself, a 4-2 Israel win, was played at low intensity with more of an exhibition feel. When the two teams met again in Tokyo with something on the line, the Netherlands won, 12-2, in eight innings.
The Netherlands' offensive outburst in the second round may be in part due to manager Hensley Meulens shuffling his lineup a bit. First, he moved the hot-hitting Didi Gregorius up a spot to hit behind the slugging Wladimir Balentein. Meulens then moved Xander Bogaerts into the two-hole, dropping the hotter-hitting Jurickson Profar to third, clustering his two hottest bats around his most powerful one. Then, Meulens benched the cold bats of catcher Dashenko Ricardo, first baseman Curt Smith and left fielder Randolph Oduber in favor of Shawn Zarraga, veteran Yurendell de Caster and Kalian Sams. Zarraga, de Caster and Sams (the last of whom went 3-for-4 with a home run against the D-backs on Saturday), all rose to the challenge, while Balentien went 6-for-8 with a pair of home runs in the final two games of the round and was named the most valuable player of Pool E. Given that the Netherlands has the least accomplished pitching among the final four teams, having their lineup maximized will be particularly important. Unfortunately, Gregorius, who has hit .348/.385/.652 thus far in the tournament, has been removed from the roster due to a hematoma of the subscapularis muscle in his right shoulder.
Tournament record: 6-0
Round 2 runs scored/allowed per game: 7.3/2.7
Tournament run differential: +36
Unofficial MVP: Carlos Correa, 3B (.375/.556/.813, 6-for-16, 2B, 2 HR, 9 BB, 2 SB)
Top pitcher: Seth Lugo, RHP (2-0, 2.45 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 11 IP, 2 GS)
LF Angel Pagan (S)
SS Francisco Lindor (S)
3B Carlos Correa (R)
DH Carlos Beltran (S)
C Yadier Molina (R)
2B Javier Baez (R)
RF Eddie Rosario (L)
1B T.J. Rivera (R)
CF Reymond Fuentes (L)
Like the Netherlands, Puerto Rico is gaining ground as a World Baseball Classic power house, making it to the semifinals for the second time after losing the 2013 final to the Dominican Republic. Puerto Rico tore through the first round, outscoring its opponents 29-7 to post the best run differential of the round. In the second round, P.R. held the powerful Dominican lineup to one run, then dropped a four-spot on the U.S. in the bottom of the first and never surrendered the lead. Having clinched its semifinal berth with those two victories, Puerto Rico's second-round finale against an eliminated Venezuelan team was a formality, so manager Edwin Rodriguez put every member of his bench in the lineup. Puerto Rico won, 13-2.
The most surprising thing about Puerto Rico's performance thus far has been its pitching, which has been the stingiest in the tournament. In 50 innings thus far, Puerto Rico's pitching staff has posted a 2.35 ERA and 0.98 WHIP with 48 strikeouts, while Puerto Rico's opponents have averaged just 2.5 runs per game. Team defense has surely contributed to that. The infield of Correa, Lindor and Baez is outstanding, with Correa showing impressively quick reactions at third base despite playing out of position. The team has also received strong play from its less celebrated outfielders, and the success of that pitching staff surely owes more than a little to Molina, who was the Pool F MVP. As a result, what this first semifinal offers is the tournament's hottest lineup against its stingiest pitching and defense.
For what it's worth, Puerto Rico is 3-0 against the Netherlands in World Baseball Classic play. The two teams last met in the first round in 2009, with Puerto Rico beating the Dutch twice in that round, but both advancing. Both were semifinalists in 2013, but they did not face each other. Instead, both lost to the Dominican Republic -- the Netherlands in the semifinals, Puerto Rico in the finals.
Tournament record: 4-2
Round 2 runs scored/allowed per game: 5.0/3.7
Tournament run differential: +11
Unofficial MVP: Brandon Crawford (.444/.500/.722, 8-for-18, 3 2B, 3B, 2 BB)
Top pitcher: Sam Dyson, RHP (0.00 ERA, 0.00 WHIP, 4 IP, 3 G)
2B Ian Kinsler (R)
CF Adam Jones (R)
LF Christian Yelich (L)
3B Nolan Arenado (R)
1B Eric Hosmer (L)
C Buster Posey (R)
RF Andrew McCutchen (R)
DH Giancarlo Stanton (R)
SS Brandon Crawford (L)
With their 6-3 victory over the defending champion Dominican Republic, Team USA has reached the World Baseball Classic semifinals for just the second time, last doing so in 2009, when it lost to none other than Japan as the road team at Dodger Stadium. The U.S. enters this year's semifinal with the smallest run differential of any of the final four teams. It seems its 10-inning, 3-2 win over the upstart Colombian team in its first of the tournament wasn't a wake-up call, it was a tone-setter.
To be fair, Colombia pushed the Dominican Republic into extras as well, but outside of an 8-0 laugher over the 0-3 Canadian team, the U.S.'s largest margin of victory in this tournament was actually it's 6-3 victory over the D.R. in Saturday night's clincher. The U.S. lost to the Dominicans in the first round, blowing what had been a 5-0 lead in the sixth inning, and lost to Puerto Rico in the second round 6-5. That last one was encouraging in its own way, however, as those five runs were more than any other team has scored against Puerto Rico in a single game in this tournament, and that one-run margin of victory was Puerto Rico's smallest of the tournament.
Indeed, for a team that has been accused of lacking the intensity of its rivals in past Classics, Team USA has been playing resilient, determined and passionate baseball thus far. There's a general impression that, now that we're into the second half of March, the Americans, fewer of whom play winter ball or engaged in early preparation for this year's classic, are rounding into shape, with the bullpen, buoyed by the addition of Mark Melancon for the final round, in particular looking sharper and some of the team's formerly struggling hitters contributing to Saturday's crucial victory.
All of that said, there's still a sense that 72-year-old retired Major League manager Jim Leyland is more concerned with making sure all of the Major League regulars on his roster get playing time as he is about putting his best team on the field. That's certainly the impression one gets from the news that Tanner Roark, who was lit up in his only prior appearance in this Classic, will start the semifinal against Japan. The reality is that Leyland is largely out of choices. Danny Duffy is ineligible to pitch again after throwing 74 pitches on Saturday. Marcus Stroman can't pitch again until the final after throwing 77 pitches on Friday, and Chris Archer and Drew Smyly -- both of whom were outstanding in their lone World Baseball Classic starts -- have already returned to their teams. As for Leyland's other lineup choices, questionable as they may seem, it's difficult to argue with the results, particularly given that the difference between two All-Stars is exceedingly small in a single-game sample, even if there's a significant gap between those two players over the course of 162 games.
Tournament record: 6-0
Round 2 runs scored/allowed per game: 8.0/4.7
Tournament run differential: +24
Unofficial MVP: Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh, LF (.364/.462/.773, 8-for-22, 3 HR, 8 RBIs, 4 BB)
Top pitcher: Kodai Senga, RHP (1-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 11 K, 9 IP, 3 G, 1 GS)
DH Tetsuto Yamada (R)
2B Ryosuke Kikuchi (R)
CF Norichika Aoki (L)
LF Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh (L)
1B Sho Nakata (R)
SS Hayato Sakamoto (R)
RF Seiya Suzuki (R)
3B Noburhiro Matsuda (R)
C Seiji Kobayashi (R)
Japan is the only team to make it to the semifinals in all four World Baseball Classics, the only team to make the finals twice, and the champion of two of the first three tournaments. Its only semifinal loss was a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Puerto Rico in 2013, and Samurai Japan would surely love a chance for revenge in a final against Puerto Rico this year.
Japan has, at worst, the second-best roster in this year's final four, behind that of the United States, and enters Tuesday's semifinal as one of the two undefeated teams remaining in this tournament. Still, Japan didn't look invincible in the second round. It took them 11 innings, and the runners-on-base head-start that comes with that, to defeat the Netherlands in their first game of the round. In their next game, they were tied 5-5 with Cuba after seven and a half innings before finally scoring the go-ahead runs in the bottom of the eighth. They did beat Israel soundly in the final game, 8-3, but even that was a scoreless game in the middle of the sixth. Meanwhile, the 14 runs Japan allowed in those three games were the most allowed in the second round by any of the four semifinalists. Japan has a talented pitching staff, but its 6-0 record thus far is due largely to the potency of its lineup.
Japan and the United States last met in the 2009 semifinals, with Japan winning 9-4. The Japanese's only other meeting in World Baseball Classic play came in the first game of the second round in 2006, with the U.S. winning 4-3, only for Japan to be the only one of the two teams to advance out of the round. A U.S.-Japan semifinal thus represents something of a dream matchup for the WBC, though the U.S.-Japan final that many assumed would be the natural result of this tournament when it was first created in '06 remains elusive. Nonetheless, the next three days should deliver some of the most compelling baseball we'll have a chance to witness until at least September.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.