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Thursday, March 19, 2009
Updated: March 23, 2:22 AM ET
Japan remains team to beat among final four at the WBC

ESPN.com

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Japan heads to the semifinals of the WBC looking to defend its 2006 title.

LOOKING AT THE LAST FOUR STANDING AT THE WBC

By ERIC YOUNG, ESPN

Well, we're down to the final four of the World Baseball Classic, and there have been some classic games, amazing upsets and virtuoso individual performances so far. It's been fun watching these games, and I'm already waiting for this weekend's semifinals and final. Let's take a look at the final four and evaluate their chances.

UNITED STATES

After the first two games, Team USA looked like the hands-down favorite to me. The starters looked good, the bullpen was in midseason form and the ball jumped off the bats like it was the College World Series.

Sadly, injuries have decimated this team's hitting, and while the U.S. was able to plug some impressive players in to take the spots of guys like Chipper Jones, they are nonetheless plugging in inexperienced guys. While it's true that no one on this team has a ton of international experience, it's tough to lose veterans like Jones and Kevin Youkilis, both of whom have been in pressure situations and come through. That's not a knock on a guy like Evan Longoria, who I believe will be a superstar and a stalwart on Team USA, but it's just not the perfect situation.

This team is going to have to be carried by its pitching staff. They need Jake Peavy to step up and show why he's thought of as one of the best pitchers in the world. More importantly, the U.S. needs a big effort from the bullpen.

If that doesn't happen, this team could be in trouble in a hurry.

JAPAN

The defending champion clearly knows what it takes to win here. Japan has an excellent mix of pitching, defense and timely hitting. Yes, this team has the goods to repeat as world champion. Coming into this tournament, I deemed Japan my favorite because it doesn't make the little mistakes that eat away at a team's chances.

Japan isn't built around power, as evidenced by the team's three home runs. But Japan's players get on base. The scary part about this team is that arguably its most talented hitter (Ichiro Suzuki) isn't hitting well at all and is actually mired in a bit of a slump. If he's able to turn it around starting in the semifinals, then you have to consider Japan the absolute favorite.

KOREA

Of the four teams left, Korea is probably the biggest surprise because not a whole lot is known about this squad. Korea had a great showing in the 2006 tournament.

This year, the team is being led by pitcher Jung Keun Bong and infielder Tae Kyun Kim. Bong has been lights-out and is one of the most fearsome pitchers in the WBC. He has done a great job of mystifying opposing hitters by keeping them off-balance and mixing up his impressive arsenal of pitches. Kim has looked great, showing a great ability to get on base. I don't see him slowing down in the semifinals.

My only problem with this team is I don't quite trust this bullpen. The relievers have had some blowups, and I'm not sure they can hold a lead in a tight game against some of these impressive lineups.

VENEZUELA This squad could walk away with the championship by sheer power. It seems like everyone on this team is absolutely mashing. The fact that Venezuela hasn't had very good performances is being ignored because of how strong the hitting has been.

To be honest, despite my stated belief that pitching and defense is the absolute key to winning this, I think Venezuela's bats are hot enough to carry it through. But if those bats go cold, then they'll get bounced out extremely quickly.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: March 18 | March 17 | March 16 | March 15 | March 12

BEST OF THE BLOGS

Each day, ESPN.com's contributors offer a wide array of thoughts and analysis in their blogs. Peter Gammons looks at the empire the Cubs are building. Yes, the Cubs:

MESA, Ariz. -- The sale of the Chicago Cubs to Tom Ricketts still is more than two months away. But the team that won the most regular-season games in the National League in 2008 and the organizational operation that long has been a financial sleeper eagerly await the in-season transition as they try to end the club's 101-year itch and move forward as one of the sport's economic superpowers.

This season's Cubs again should be the favorites in the NL Central. They subtracted Mark DeRosa, closer Kerry Wood and the innings of Jason Marquis while adding American League OPS leader Milton Bradley, Aaron Heilman and Aaron Miles.

They hope Alfonso Soriano can remain healthy (109 games, 29 homers in 2008). They know Derrek Lee is capable of more than 20 homers.

For the rest of this entry from Peter Gammons' blog, click here.


Jayson Stark provides some of the oddities from spring training:

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The strange spring of 2009 rumbles on …

HELLO, HOUSTON: Clubs that have spoken with the Astros say that in the wake of the loss of Aaron Boone, they'll give Chris Johnson every opportunity to win Boone's spot as a platoon third baseman and utility man. But here are a few names that could still show up on their shopping list in the next two weeks: Juan Uribe (Giants), Jose Bautista (Blue Jays) and Jeff Baker (Rockies).

USELESS SPRING TIDBIT OF THE CENTURY: Has any team ever piled up a crazier spring record than the Astros? Nineteen games into spring training, they have two more ties than wins. They're 1-15-3 through Wednesday, if you haven't been hanging on those Grapefruit League standings. "If that's not the ultimate spring training useless information, I don't know what is," laughed one NL exec.

For the rest of this entry from Jayson Stark's blog, click here.

BBTN ON THE AIR: SATURDAY

TIME WHO'S ON?
7 p.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Kevin Negandhi
Analyst: Buster Olney

BBTN ON THE AIR: SUNDAY

TIME WHO'S ON?
12:30 p.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Karl Ravech
Analyst: Buster Olney

BBTN MINUTE: WBC FINAL FOUR

BASEBALL TONIGHT MAILBAG

Inside EdgeHave a question for one of our analysts? Ever wonder what it's like behind the scenes at "Baseball Tonight"? Curious about a player or a team or an executive?

Well, ask away here, at the Baseball Tonight Clubhouse mailbag. Each week, our experts will answer your questions.

WBC HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT: JAPAN WINS

THURSDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
Evan Longoria• Help is, mercifully, on the way for Team USA. Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria was officially placed on the team on Thursday and will join the team in time for its semifinal game Sunday night at Dodger Stadium. Team USA has been marred by injuries throughout this World Baseball Classic.
WORST
Brian Schneider• A night after watching David Wright limp around during Team USA's game with Venezuela at the WBC, the Mets dealt with more injury realities. Catcher Brian Schneider is out indefinitely with a strained right calf. If he is not ready for Opening Day, the Mets will go with backup Ramon Castro.

NUMBERS TO KNOW

David Ortiz had his worst season as a member of the Boston Red Sox in 2008, hitting .264 with 23 homers and 89 RBIs. Was it injury-related (he missed 53 games with various ailments last season, mainly in his left wrist) or was it a regression for a slugger on the wrong side of 30?

One thing to keep an eye on in 2009 when determining if Ortiz is ready to get back to cranking out 30 HR/100 RBI seasons again is his performance against fastballs and curveballs:

David Ortiz
vs. fastballs vs. curveballs
2007 2008 2007 2008
BA .371 .297 .353 .179
SLG .736 .559 .588 .359

If the Red Sox are going to be near the top of the league in runs again in 2009, they'll need Ortiz to produce like he did before 2008. If he doesn't, the Red Sox could find themselves hard-pressed to keep up with the offenses of the Yankees and Rays this season.

-- ESPN Stats and Information

FANTASY BASEBALL

Fantasy Have questions about how to build your roster? Whom you should choose early or late in your draft? Which catcher you want? We have the answers. Draft Kit

ESPN INSIDER

Insider Which numbers actually mean something in spring? Which numbers should we ignore? BP Daily examines. BP Daily

For more, check out ESPN Insider.