By Larry Fine
(Reuters) – Team USA, after three swings and misses at the World Baseball Classic, are determined not to strike out again in the game’s top international competition, which gets underway on Monday in Seoul.
Japan won the first two WBC tournaments in 2006 and 2009, beating Cuba and South Korea in the respective finals, while the Dominican Republic raised the trophy in 2013 after defeating Puerto Rico for the title.
The best showing by the United States, birthplace of the game, was a fourth-place finish in 2009 and Team USA manager Jim Leyland would obviously like to see that change.
“This is not a party. We want to win,” Leyland, who retired in 2013 after managing 22 years in Major League Baseball, told reporters after the impressive U.S. roster was announced. “I can’t imagine what that would feel like. I’d love to find out.”
The WBC, boasting more than 60 former Major League Baseball All-Stars across the 16 national teams, shifts the 2017 calendar into a higher gear as top professional leagues prepare for their upcoming seasons.
Four pools of four teams each contest the first round in Seoul, Tokyo, Miami and Guadalajara, Mexico. Two teams from each pool advance to the second round in Tokyo and San Diego, which will produce the final four for the championship round in Los Angeles from March 20-22.
South Korea host Israel in the opener of Pool A, which also includes Taiwan and the Netherlands, a semi-finalist in 2013.
Pool B, comprised of Japan, Cuba, Australia and China, begins on March 7 in Tokyo.
Powerhouses Dominican Republic and Team USA are in Pool C, which also includes Canada and Colombia and begins on March 9 in Miami.
Mexico host Pool D and an impressive Venezuela team, Puerto Rico and Italy.
The WBC offers the likes of Venezuela’s Miguel Cabrera and Jose Altuve, Dominicans Robinson Cano and Manny Machado, and U.S. players like Buster Posey and Giancarlo Stanton playing meaningful games before the 2017 MLB season begins.
That fact causes some concern on the major league level.
“It’s an honor to represent your country, which I understand and support,” Indians manager Terry Francona told reporters at Cleveland’s Arizona training camp.
However, Francona added that asking pitchers to bear down in pressure situations before they are ready can lead to trouble.
“That’s how guys get hurt. So yeah, our heart’s in our throat a little bit.”Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he would not advise his players to play it safe.
“If you play with caution, you’re more likely to get hurt,” said Showalter. “It’s an emotional game for them. This means a lot to them. I’m not going to take that away from them, but I’d rather him play full out than be cautious.”
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)