Honkball Talk

Honkball Talkin’

In a fit of insomnia, I’ve been staying up and watching the opening week of the World Baseball Classic. To get up to date on the first weekend of games, read the recaps here.

It’s a fairly big night for the World Baseball Classic as Group B will be finished by the end of the slate while the Group A also-rans fight for the right to skip qualifying next time around. It’s a triple header that starts at 11:30pm ET Monday night, with the marquee Chinese Taipei v South Korea match-up set for 6:30am.

GAME 9 – Australia 1 v Netherlands 4 – GROUP B

The MLB experience of the top of the Netherlands lineup continued to stand head and shoulders above the average WBC player on any of the teams in Group B.  Andrelton Simmons, who is setting the standard for shortstops in the tournament, led off the bottom of the 1st with his 3rd double in 3 games and scored two batters later on a Roger Bernadina single. Simmons, Bernadina, Wladimir Balentien, Andruw Jones, and 2012 Baltimore Orioles Minor League Player of the Year Jonathan Schoop combined for 5 hits and all 4 Dutch RBI in the game. The 21-year old Schoop, the 86th overall prospect according Baseball America, launched a 2-run shot in the 2nd inning to open up a 4-0 lead.

There was a slight feeling that the Netherlands were in control the entire game with Australia failing to look threatening at any point in the first 7 innings, especially against 38-year old starter Robbie Cordemans, who threw 5 innings of 2-hit shutout ball. In the 8th a lead-off walk got the Aussies buzzing but Schoop and Simmons combined on a flawless double play to avoid trouble, and in the 9th Australia brought the game tying run to the plate but Brad Harman came up two feet short of a game tying home run.

The Kingdom of the Netherlands win and punch their ticket to Tokyo, meaning one of Chinese Taipei or Korea will not be moving on. Australia is sent packing without a significant improvement or guaranteed spot in the next tournament, but at least I was made aware of the existence of Matthew Williams.

Look At This F***ing Pitcher

Look At This F***ing Pitcher

GAME 10 – Brazil 2 v China 5 – GROUP A

With both teams sitting at 0-2 and heavy favourites Japan and Cuba already booking hotel rooms for the next round in Tokyo, Brazil and China were going head-to-head with an automatic qualification to the next WBC tournament on the line. The steely gaze of manager Barry Larkin led Brazil against the Hollywood movie magic of Art Howe, who is bench coaching for China.

This was, without a doubt, one of the ugliest games of baseball I’ve ever seen. Brazil took the lead in the 2nd by scrambling together a run after a lead-off hit by pitch, and added to it in the 7th thanks to some more small ball by way of single, a bunt, and an RBI groundout. Things seemed to be going swimmingly for Brazil and Barry Larkin almost seemed ready to break into a smile when disaster struck. Murilo Gouvea allowed an infield single to lead off the 8th and after getting a strikeout walked the next two batters to load the bases. His bullpen replacement immediately walked in a run and surrendered a back breaking bases-loaded 2-run single to China’s captain Ray Chang, a Kansas City native who reached AA in the Pirates organization. The Brazilian bullpen would finish off the inning by walking in two more runs, bringing the total 8th inning damage to 5 walks, 2 hits, 1 HBP, and 5 runs.

A devastated Brazil side was retired in order in the 9th. The game ended with several Chinese players in tears hugging manager John McLaren and bench coach Art Howe while Barry Larkin seethed from the dugout, a scene so poignant not even Aaron Sorkin could write it.

The story of Brazil’s tournament will be how close they came to upsetting all 3 teams they played, and how much of a huge role Larkin played in all of it. The truth is that the bat of qualifying round hero Yan Gomes was sorely missed. For China, a country that failed to field a professional baseball league in 2012, an automatic birth in the next WBC is a giant shot in the arm.

GAME 11 – Chinese Taipei 2 v South Korea 3 – GROUP B

In the lead up to this year’s WBC one of my favourite stories was about four Taiwanese advanced scouts that posed as umpire trainees in an attempt to gather information during a South Korean practice game. Taiwan officials offered a formal apology that was accepted so there likely shouldn’t be any bad blood between the teams, but you have to love the level of competition the tournament is bringing out of regional rivals.

Thanks to the Netherlands clinching a ticket to Toyko earlier, Korea came into the game knowing they’d need to beat Chinese Taipei by 6 or more runs to move on to the next round and as the home team, they would essentially only have 8 innings to do it. These two teams had been a study in contrasts, with Chinese Taipei dominating thanks to superior defense, pitching and timely at-bats, while Korea made 4 errors and gave up 10 hits in their disappointing loss.

Old narratives die hard and in the 3rd inning a lead off single by Chinese Taipei’s Dai-Kang Yang came around to count when a pair of bobbles in the outfield led to an E8 and a 1-0 deficit for Korea. Korea struggled to manufacture runs, ending the 1st inning with TOOTBLAN at 3rd base, failing to cash in on runners in scoring position in the 3rd and bases loaded in the 4th, and having a runner thrown out at the plate to end the 5th. Taiwan made it look easy, tacking together back-to-back hits to open the lead to 2-0.

Korea tried to answer and managed 3 runs in the 8th, but the slim lead actually guaranteed there would be no chance for the 2-time semi finalists to win by 6 and advance. One of the reasons I imagine some people have such a tough time accepting this tournament would be the moments like watching Chinese Taipei celebrate blowing a 2-run lead in the 8th inning.

It would be difficult to talk about this game without mentioning the crowd at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium . The 23,341 fans set a record for the largest attendance at a Taiwanese baseball game and were raucous and attentive from first pitch to the handshakes, with not a single at-bat going by without a customized song and synchronized thunder-sticking beating along in the background. They were sent home happy as Chinese Taipei ultimately won by losing to the right score.

The Taichung “Group B” bracket ends with the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei advancing to Tokyo, where they will be joined by Cuba and Japan in some order. Taiwanese LF Dai-Kang Yang was named pool MVP. Group A in Fukuoka wraps up tomorrow starting at 5am, when 2-time champion Japan faces off against world #1 Cuba.