While Pool A began with a surprise as Israel beat Korea, eventually leading to the home team and favorite’s early exit from the tournament, Pool B went a little more as expected. Japan easily beat Cuba in game one, then knocked off Australia 4-1 in their second game. The new look Japanese team that no longer features the big names of past tournaments like Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka then only had to wait until a team took two losses to guarantee entry into round two and China obliged tanking 11-0 against Australia after losing their first game 6-0 to Cuba. With nothing on the line, Japan crushed China 7-1 in the final game of Pool B to close out a perfect 3-0 record.
China was an interesting team coming into the tournament, lead by their ace Bruce Chen, who is currently a coach in the Indians minor league system and hasn’t pitched professionally since a small workload in 2015. The 39 year old left hander surprised everyone, however, with 2.2 gutsy innings against the powerful Cuban team, shutting them out until he had to be removed due to pitch count.
With Japan in and China out, this left the final position up to one final game on Thursday night (Friday afternoon in Tokyo) between team Cuba and team Australia. This game would end up being the most intense to date in the 2017 WBC as the two teams have a history and were playing with a round two entry on the line. The two teams traded zeros for the first four innings with one particularly tight moment coming in the bottom of the fourth when Cuba loaded the bases with one out. With runners on first and second, Yurisbel Gracial hit a single up the middle, but rather than running aggressively, Frederich Cepeda held at third. This would wind up hurting Cuba as Warwick Saupold then induced a ground ball back to himself that he threw home with Allen de San Miguel tossed to first to end the inning and complete the double play.
Australia would score on a similar play in the top of the next inning and with the great pitching to this point, there was a possibility it would be enough. Unfortunately for Oceania, it wasn’t, as Cuba loaded the bases in the bottom half and this time came through as Alfredo Despaigne hit a grand slam deep off the dome in left. Australia would continue to threaten with baserunners, but would struggle to bring them home all game. They added a second run in the seventh on a Trent Oeltjen solo shot and another in the 8th, but it wouldn’t be enough as they fell 4-3. Miguel Lahera earned the save with a quick 9th to clinch the second advancement from Pool B.
Heading into the tournament, it appeared that the American pools had considerably more talent than the Asian pools with the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the US all legitimate contenders. We expected greatness from Japan, Cuba, Korea and the Netherlands as well, but Korea has already been unseated, Cuba pushed hard by the low ranked Australian team and the Netherlands beaten by the surprising team Israel. Japan and the Netherlands will likely be the favorites for round two in Tokyo despite Israel earning the top seed from Pool A, but it will be very interesting to see if Israel can keep up their hot start and if Cuba can come back from a rocky start in Pool B. Each team will play each other twice with the top two records advancing. Should there be a tie, there is the option of a final tie breaker game before heading to the US and the semi-finals in San Diego.