Starting Thursday, baseball takes a global glance to the next round of qualifiers for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, and some big names are taking time out of their Spring Training schedules to get involved with national pride on the line.
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Take Adrian Gonzalez, for example. The Dodgers first baseman was last seen in Classic play in 2013, when he homered for Mexico off R.A. Dickey of the American team, and this week he'll leave Dodgers camp in Glendale, Ariz., to join Team Mexico in the four-team qualifier at Estadio B-Air in Mexicali, Mexico. The other teams in the qualifier will be Germany, the Czech Republic and Nicaragua, with one team emerging from the pool to make it to the 16-team field for the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, a native of Panama, will play for his home country in the other qualifier this week. It will take place at Rod Carew National Stadium in Panama City and will feature Panama, Colombia, Spain and France. This four-team tourney also will produce one qualifier for the 2017 Classic. Both qualifiers have a six-game, modified-double-elimination format, with the fourth and final qualifier, featuring Brazil, Great Britain, Israel and Pakistan, set for MCU Park in Brooklyn from Sept. 22-25. The teams that have already qualified for the 2017 Classic are Australia, Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, the United States and Venezuela.
Last month, Australia won its qualifier on its home turf in Sydney to book another ticket for the Classic, and it did so with some former Major Leaguers on the roster. In this week's qualifier, we'll see more familiar names.
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In addition to Gonzalez and Ruiz, Adrian's brother, Edgar, is a former big leaguer who is now serving as the manager for Mexico, and Nationals reliever Oliver Perez will be in the team's bullpen for the qualifier. The immediate goal will be to get past the second round, since Mexico was eliminated at that stage of the first two tournaments (2006 and '09) and knocked out in the first round in '13, when it lost to Canada. Adrian Gonzalez has the full support of Dodgers manager Dave Roberts to leave camp for the qualifier.
"I think it's fantastic," Roberts said. "I'm happy he's playing for his country. It means a lot for him and his family. And as a veteran player, we really don't need to concern ourselves with Adrian getting ready for a season."
Other MLB-affiliated players who will be involved in the qualifiers include Nationals prospect Paolo Espino, who will pitch for Panama; Seattle infielder Efren Navarro and Cincinnati outfielder Juan Perez, who are on Mexico's roster; A's Minor League catcher Bruce Maxwell and Reds outfielder Donald Lutz, who are playing for Germany; and Mets infielder Dilson Herrera, who will suit up for Colombia.
The managers of the teams are a who's-who of former big leaguers, too. Former Dodgers closer Eric Gagne will manage the French team. Former slugging outfielder Carlos Lee will be in charge of Team Panama. Former infielder Garth Iorg will helm Germany. Longtime Major League outfielder Marvin Benard will be the skipper for Nicaragua. And Luis Urueta is the manager for Colombia.
Back in Arizona and Florida, meanwhile, there is plenty of must-see baseball going on this week, and all of it is available live on MLB.TV.
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On Monday, you can watch Mariners ace Felix Hernandez make his long-awaited Cactus League debut. He's slated to take the hill at 4:10 p.m. ET in Peoria Stadium against the Rockies.
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"I've always seen it from the other dugout or on TV in a different uniform," new Seattle manager Scott Servais said. "I'm excited and I'm sure he is as well to get it rolling."
Also Monday on MLB.TV, there will be a battle of Bay Area aces, with new San Francisco Giants right-hander Johnny Cueto taking the ball against A's righty Sonny Gray under the lights at 10:05 p.m. ET at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa.
And on Thursday, two of the National League's exciting young arms will square off against each other when New York Mets left-hander Steven Matz will take the mound against Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez at 1:05 p.m. ET at Roger Dean Stadium.