The World Baseball Classic isn't perfect. The late starts on the West Coast aren't optimal, as fans on the East Coast or in Puerto Rico had to stay up past midnight to see the exciting finishes to the semifinal games. The games have been sloppy at times -- the Netherlands had two crucial baserunning mistakes in its loss to Puerto Rico, for example, and Japan had two defensive miscues that led to two United States runs in the rainy conditions Tuesday. What's more, purists weren't exactly writing baseball poetry about the rule that puts runners on first and second to start the 11th inning.
As always, however, the game ends up selling itself, and the games have been dramatic. Let's hope the championship game between the U.S. and undefeated Puerto Rico matches the level of excitement we've seen so far. Here are a few things to look for:
Seth Lugo, the man of the hour: The former 34th-round pick was born and grew up in Louisiana, went to college in Louisiana and pitches for the Mets, but he's now the pride of Puerto Rico, as he will face off against U.S. starter Marcus Stroman. Lugo got shelled in Triple-A last year but was pressed into service in the Mets' rotation, and he excelled with a 2.67 ERA in 64 innings while relying on a tight curveball that showcased the highest spin rate in the majors.
Lugo started against the U.S. in Puerto Rico's 6-5 win in the second round. He allowed five hits and three runs in 5 2/3 innings (Adam Jones and Buster Posey homered off him). Puerto Rico doesn't have the bullpen depth that the U.S. does, so there is more pressure on Lugo to pitch and pitch deeper into the game.
Will Edwin Diaz be available? Yes. After he threw two innings and 19 pitches on Monday (not including an intentional walk), there was concern that the Mariners wouldn't allow Diaz to pitch in the championship game because it's unusual for a closer to throw two innings in spring training, especially when you're as amped up as Diaz was, throwing 100 miles per hour. The Mariners -- and Puerto Rico -- did luck out when Diaz had to throw only four pitches in his second inning, thanks to a first-pitch, inning-ending double play. After Diaz reportedly asked to be made available, the Mariners relented.
"What he's going through right now should be a big, big benefit for him," Mariners manager Scott Servais told reporters Tuesday. "The only way to go through that is to experience it, and hopefully we'll benefit from that quite a bit down the road."
It seems unlikely, however, that Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez would extend Diaz past one inning.
Let's discuss Jim Leyland: In the USA's win over Japan, Leyland made the absolute most indefensible move of the tournament, creating a minor meltdown on Twitter and stirring up memories that Tigers fans had stashed in the deepest, darkest recesses of their minds. Of course, the move worked. Leading 2-1 in the eighth, he removed Mark Melancon with two on and two outs after just 11 pitches and brought in sidearmer Pat Neshek to face Japan's best hitter, Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh, who happens to bat left-handed. Neshek happened to allow a .646 slugging percentage against lefties last season, which means he basically turned the average left-handed batter into David Ortiz. Tsutsugoh flew out to right field.
In other words, there's no way of knowing how Leyland will handle the bullpen: In theory, every U.S. reliever should be available. I'm guessing that was part of Leyland's thinking: Don't allow any one reliever to throw too many pitches. Andrew Miller faced just three batters, though he did throw 17 pitches. Still, he should be ready to get two or three outs Wednesday. The one guy you might not see is Nate Jones, who pitched 1 1/3 innings on Tuesday.
The Puerto Rico lineup should be exclusively right-handed and switch-hitters, so it’s a better matchup for Stroman than if a left-hander had been slated to start, and Leyland's deep arsenal of right-handed relievers plays to Team USA's strength.
Will Nolan Arenado be in the U.S. lineup? Although Leyland hasn’t found many at-bats for Daniel Murphy or Paul Goldschmidt -- primarily sticking with Ian Kinsler at second base and Eric Hosmer at first -- he has stuck with Arenado in the cleanup spot. The Rockies' All-Star is just 3-for-26 in the tournament and went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Japan (he has had just one four-strikeout game in the majors). That gives him six K's in two games.
My guess is Arenado still starts, as Alex Bregman has just four at-bats in the tournament. Leyland could give Murphy the start at third base, but he might not want to sacrifice defense, and reacting to such a small sample of plate appearances is a little silly. Murphy could get the start at DH to get another left-handed bat in the lineup.
How does Puerto Rico bridge the gap to Diaz? Rodriguez keeps pulling the right strings, including a quick hook with Jorge Lopez in the semifinal game in favor of veteran lefty Hector Santiago, who started 33 games in the majors last season but has pitched out of the bullpen in this series. However, Santiago threw 63 pitches, so he isn't eligible to pitch in the final. Obviously, the best-case scenario is for Lugo to get at least six innings out of his 95-pitch limit, but if he struggles, look for Twins right-hander Jose Berrios to be the long man out of the pen.
The genius of Yadier Molina, future Hall of Famer: He's throwing runners out, blocking the plate, coaxing good work out of a relatively inexperienced pitching staff, dropping down bunts, keeping the Gatorade dispenser full and generally serving as the spiritual leader of Team Puerto Rico. Molina, by the way, is signed only through 2017 (with a mutual option for 2018 that Molina is certain to reject), and talk of a new contract has been a controversy of late in St. Louis, especially after older brother Bengie went on MLB Network Radio a few days ago and lamented that no extension has been signed. Molina turns 35 in July, and though it's difficult to imagine him leaving the Cardinals, the Cards once let Albert Pujols walk away.