Thank You Abe-sed God

Thank You Abe-sed God

Like a lot of people that were raised mostly on coming-of-age television shows and ‘matured’ into a society that lets you immediately share intimate moments of your life with the whole world, I am guilty of occasionally being stricken with instant nostalgia.  Every so often a sandwich or song or restaurant will remind me of some other time in my life when I was happy or sad and I’ll get to relive it a little bit. It’s fun and annoying and incredibly self-centered and one of the many things that sparks it for me is the World Baseball Classic. Last time the WBC came around I was 23, driving back and forth between the most fun baseball I’d ever experienced to a week-long house party, and I capped the whole experience off with a first kiss on a date in the pouring rain. It was very hazy, very melodramatic, and very me. It was all so perfect, it felt just like the TV shows and tumblr photographs with quotes on them told me life would feel like. 

This year the excitement of competitive baseball being available on March 1st combined with nostalgia from 2009 and modern-day insomnia have turned the tournament into a nightly companion, humming along beside me through the wee hours of the weekend in place of a loved one or beautiful stranger I might have met in a chance encounter outside my own apartment. Maybe some of you had something you deemed more important (like sleep or sex or raising children) than watching Pool A and B start at 11pm and 5am this weekend, and if so, you’re welcome, because I’ve been dutifully learning and consuming the opening games of the tournament like I consumed bottles of James Ready and crackers smothered in pot-peanut butter just 4 years ago.

Here’s what you missed while you slept:

GAME 1 – Chinese Taipei 4 v Australia 1 – GROUP B

Chinese Taipei is the designated name of the Republic of China, more commonly known as Taiwan. If, for some reason, someone walks by while you’re watching Chinese Taipei play or while you’re looking at the standings, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll ask why there’s a China and a Chinese Taipei. Tell them that CT is more commonly know as Taiwan, that there’s a difference between the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China, and then tell them to back off because you’re just trying to watch baseball and wasn’t planning on giving a geography and Chinese political history lecture.

In the tournament opener former Yankee starter Chien-Ming Wang had no issues with the 65 pitch limit, cruising through 6 innings, giving up just 5 hits, walking none and fanning 2. Australia didn’t ever really look too threatening against Wang, and by the time he left the game it was 4-0 thanks to big hits from two guys who play in the Taiwanese domestic league Chih-Sheng Lin and Cheng-Min Peng, the latter of which hit a solo home run that did not come complete with a bat flip. If it is any consolation to the Aussies and their fans, they have by far the tournament’s best hat.

GAME 2 – Japan 5 v Brazil 3 – GROUP A

Two-time defending champion Japan is without a doubt the team I was most excited to see this weekend. They had been led in the last two tournaments by MLB talent like Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Ichiro!, but this year’s version is taking pride in not fielding a single major league player, instead bringing a full roster of stars from the Nippon Professional Baseball (NBP) league.

The crowd in Fukuoka’s Yafuoku Dome was remarkable, making noise and clapping in rhythm along to songs for specific players throughout the lineup, but they grew nervous as the game went along. The heavily favoured Team Samurai trailed the lowest ranked team in the tournament (Brazil is #20 in the world) 3-2 heading into the 8th inning thanks in large part to a 3-for-4 2RBI effort from Brazilian 3B Leonardo Reginatto, even though Barry Larkin‘s managerial presence of staring stoically at the field was getting all the credit.

That was, of course, until Shinnosuke Abe stepped to the scene. Abe (pictured above), the catcher and captain of the NPB flagship team Yomiuri Giants, is the reigning league MVP. He didn’t start the game because there was some worry over the state of his right knee, but with the bases loaded in a 3-3 tie Abe came on as a pinch-hitter. Baseball is a game of many 1-on-1 match-ups and Abe the rare breed of player that gives the impression that he is completely in control of what is about to happen. He calmly stroked a bullet back up the middle to drive in the winning run, and Japan stayed one step ahead of a massive upset.

GAME 3 – South Korea 0 v Netherlands 5 – GROUP B

The Netherlands scored the biggest upset of  the 2009 tournament (not including my personal bias over the Italy v Canada debacle) by knocking off mighty Cuba, and they were back at it right away in 2013. Don’t get it twisted: This isn’t the same lineup they put together in ’09. Major League talents Andrelton Simmons, Roger Bernadina, Wladimir Balentien, and Andruw Jones had 7 hits, with Simmons in particular adding a pair of doubles at the top of the lineup and looking every bit the player he was in Atlanta last season. The South Koreans, as can so easily happen in any given game, were done in by poor pitching, defense, and a lack of timely hits. They managed just 4 hits and went 0-for-5 with RISP, while committing 4 errors behind the 10 hits and 4 walks allowed by the 7 pitchers Korea used. Hup Hup Honkball!

GAME 4 – Cuba 5 v Brazil 2 – GROUP A

The #1 ranked team in the world sent their ace Ismel Jimenez to take care of the Brazilians and he delivered, striking out 6 over 4 2/3rds innings while the powerful Cuban lineup had 8 hits, 7 of them singles, on the way to as easy a win as one can expect against a team led by such a cagey presence as Barry Larkin. More than any particular at-bat, this game will be remembered as they day we all saw the lettering job on the jersey of Erisbel Arruebarruena.

Suck it, Saltalamacchia

Suck it, Saltalamacchia

GAME 5 – Chinese Taipei 8 v Netherlands 3 – GROUP B

The Netherlands looked poised for another upset as Taiwanese starter and Cubs property Yao-Lin Wang walked three straight Dutch batters in the 2nd inning, before giving way to a reliever who immediately hit a batter and gave up a 2-run single. That hit would end up being the only one that Chinese Taipei would give up for the rest of the game, and their offense did the rest. They nickel and dimed their way to a 5-3 lead until the 6th inning, where an RBI ground rule double by Hung-Yu Lin and a 2-run shot by Dai-Kang Yang put it on ice. Chinese Taipei look like a pretty safe bet to advance to Tokyo out of Group B.

GAME 6 – Japan 5 v China 2 – GROUP A

China baseball has a pretty amazing story. The professional league was cancelled this season due to a lack of players. There aren’t any minor leagues to speak of, so the majority of the best players in the country had no season in 2012. The result is an incredibly inexperienced side that is in pretty tough against a really good Group A. China called on 20-year old Xia Luo to take on the champs, and he was excellent, allowing just one run over 3 2/3 innings, which is doubly impressive when you learn that he didn’t know he was starting until just before game time. Only in the WBC.

Another one of the more fun things about the WBC is the different team styles. Japan plays a patient and measured game, evidenced by manager Koji Yamamoto asking his #4 hitter to bunt in the game against Brazil. Yamamoto, who hit over 500 home runs in the NBP, later admitted to only having bunted once in his entire career. That style works for them, but it isn’t conducive to crooked numbers, which may explain why such a dominant team only put up 5 runs against a Chinese squad that has nowhere near the same level of star power.

Japan’s bats woke up in a 4-run 5th inning, while team ace Kenta Maeda and the line of Japanese relievers completely drained the Chinese offense of any will to live. Maeda k’d 6, and the bullpen struck out 9 more as the champs rolled on.

GAME 7 – Cuba 12 v China 0 – GROUP A

Where Japan’s strategy was to wait out the inexperienced Chinese and pick them apart methodically, the Cubans employed the “Swing as hard as possible” strategy for facing a weaker team. The result was a 7-inning mercy rule victory capped off by a massive grand slam by Jose Abreu, who was named by Jonah Keri as the best hitter you’ve never heard of.

The Chinese inexperience manifested itself in a number of hilarious ways, including a baserunner stealing 2nd successfully only to turn around and be tagged out on his way back to first after thinking a dropped ball was actually foul, 2 different Houston Astroesque throwing errors on a bunt attempt, and an missed base appeal attempt that took 3 tries and resulted in a free steal of 3rd base for Cuba. It was never close. Luckily nobody saw it.

GAME 8 – South Korea 6 v Australia 0 – GROUP B

A must-win for South Korea if they want any hope of winning the group and they got down to business early, beating up Cubs prospect Ryan Searle with a 2-run double by Hyunsoo Kim in the first inning and 2 doubles in two innings for Seung Yuop Lee. They never looked back, cruising to a 6-0 win and heading to a group-deciding game against Chinese Taipei.

Australia hasn’t had the best start to the tourney but the future is bright, as the announcers reported 25 Australian players signed contracts to play in the United States in 2012, unless I somehow misheard a stat a 5:50am.