Two of final three spots in '17 Classic will be determined this weekend
By Mark Newman
We're all set to watch live bracket action in marathon fashion between now and the end of the weekend -- and the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament should be pretty fun to keep an eye on, too.
Let the pride and the pageantry begin in Mexicali, Mexico, and in Panama City. Two qualifiers for the 2017 World Baseball Classic get underway on Thursday, each with a pair of doubleheaders that will be streamed live on MLB.com and staggered so you have constant baseball.
In Mexicali, Germany and Nicaragua will meet at 3:30 p.m. ET in the opener of the four-team double-elimination competition at Estadio B-Air. That game will be followed by Czech Republic against host Mexico at 10:30 p.m. ET. Two more games will be played at the same time on the following day, and then the final two games are at 9 p.m. ET on Saturday, and the championship at 10 p.m. ET on Sunday.
In Panama City, the format will be the same -- but the start times are different, so you will effectively be able to experience the joy of international quadrupleheaders and elimination madness. On Thursday at brand-new Rod Carew Stadium, Colombia will play Spain in the opener at 2 p.m. ET, and then comes France vs. host Panama at 9 p.m. ET. Start times are the same on Friday, Saturday is at 9 p.m. ET, and Sunday's title game will be at 7 p.m. ET, allowing viewers a thrilling doubleheader celebration.
Australia qualified last month in Sydney to join Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Kingdom of the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, United States and Venezuela next March in the fourth World Baseball Classic. Now, two more nations are about to advance to the WBC as well, and the 16th and final entrant will come from the fourth qualifier this September at New York's Coney Island, in the home of the Brooklyn Cyclones.
Mexico is the most obvious favorite to advance this weekend, given its four past trips to the Classic, its strong roster as well as home park. Colombia could be the best pick in the Panama qualifier, bringing a roster stacked with affiliated players. In addition to All-Stars and top international talent, you'll see some interesting and familiar managers in the dugouts.
In Mexico's case, it is an especially overwhelming favorite to advance. The team is led as usual by Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, but merely having to qualify in this way is a stern reminder that anything can happen in international competition.
At the 2013 WBC, Mexico was shocked in its first game by Anthony Rizzo and Italy. Even though Mexico bounced back to beat the U.S. behind Gonzalez's homer off then-reigning National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, Mexico was subsequently ousted from the competition by Canada. It was the first time in three Classics that Mexico failed to reach the second round, so now it has to go through the qualifier and hope to avoid a pair of upsets.
Gonzalez left Dodgers camp in Camelback Ranch, Ariz., heading west across the state past Yuma and just inside the Mexican border on the Baja Peninsula. He has been a WBC stalwart, hoping to appear in his fourth consecutive event next spring. Managing Mexico will be Adrian's brother Edgar, who was a member of Team Mexico in 2009 and '13.
"If we win and get back into the World Baseball Classic next year, it can only increase the amount of kids that are playing," Adrian Gonzalez said. "Only good things can come out of it, not bad things."
Also back for Mexico and hoping for a fourth consecutive WBC trip will be left-hander Oliver Perez, who will be the only expected member of the Nationals' 25-man roster to play in next week's qualifier. Indicative of the kind of nationalistic passions that are stirred during the tournament, Perez was among seven players ejected in Mexico's last appearance after a fracas that overshadowed the country's elimination defeat against Canada.
Mexico's 28-man roster features 16 players affiliated with Major League clubs: right-handed pitchers Andres Avila (A's), Carlos Fisher (Rangers), Giovanni Gallegos (Yankees), Stephen Landazuri (Mariners) and Jake Sanchez (A's); left-handers Hector Rodriguez (Orioles) and Jesus Soto (Padres); catchers Xorge Carrillo (Mets) and Sebastian Valle (Yankees); infielders Alejandro Mejia (Cardinals) and Efren Navarro (Mariners); and outfielders Sebastian Elizalde (Reds), Leonardo Heras (Astros) and Juan Perez (Reds).
The Czech Republic will be managed by Mike Griffin, who served as a coach for the team during the 2010 Intercontinental Cup before managing the team at the '14 European Championship. The Czech Republic went 0-2 during the '13 qualifier, which marked the country's debut in the WBC. Catcher Martin Cervenka (Indians) is the lone affiliated player on the team's 28-man roster.
Former Major League infielder and coach Garth Iorg will lead Germany in the country's second appearance in a WBC qualifier. Germany made its WBC debut during the 2013 qualifying round and went 2-2 after falling to Canada in the final game. Although its best player, Max Kepler, is unavailable while trying to make the Twins' roster in Florida, Germany will feature six affiliated players: right-handed pitchers Sven Schuller (Dodgers) and Markus Solbach (D-backs); catcher Bruce Maxwell III (A's); infielder Nadir Ljatifi (Reds); and outfielders Donald Lutz (Reds) and Dominique Taylor (Royals).
Nicaragua, which will be appearing in its second WBC qualifier after going 0-2 in 2013, will be skippered by former Major League outfielder Marvin Benard, a nine-year member of the San Francisco Giants (1995-2003). The team will feature 11 affiliated players: right-handed pitchers Kevin Gadea (Mariners), Carlos Gonzalez (Reds), Osman Gutierrez (Blue Jays), Jonathan Loaisiga (Yankees), Diomar Lopez (Padres) and Jhonny Polanco (Red Sox); left-handed pitcher Leonardo Crawford (Dodgers); catcher Melvin Novoa (Rangers); infielders Alessandre Blandino (Reds) and Omar Obregon (Braves); and outfielder Jairo Beras (Rangers).
Panama City qualifier
Panama is 2-7 overall in WBC history, with both wins coming in 2013, when it failed to get out of the qualifier after going 2-2 and losing to Brazil in the final game. Will they make it back?
Two MLB All-Stars will play key roles for Panama. One is its manager, Carlos Lee, who hit 358 homers during his 14-year Major League career and played for Panama in the 2006 and '09 Classics, as well as the '13 qualifer. The other is Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, who left his team's camp in Florida to compete.
Other affiliated players on Panama's 28-man roster are right-handed pitchers Dario Agrazal (Pirates), Harold Arauz (Phillies), Paolo Espino (Nationals), Ariel Jurado (Rangers) and Humberto Mejia (Marlins); left-handed pitchers Alberto Baldonado (Mets) and Andy Otero (Braves); and infielders Javier Guerra (Padres) and Edmundo Sosa (Cardinals).
Colombia will be managed by Luis Urueta, who was the team's first-base coach in the 2013 qualifier. Urueta, who currently serves as the short-season field coordinator for the D-backs, has been a coach or coordinator in that organization since '07. Colombia went 1-2 in its WBC debut during the '13 qualifier, with its lone victory coming in an 8-1 defeat of Nicaragua.
The Colombian team features 16 affiliated players, including right-handed pitchers Nabil Crismatt (Mets), William Cuevas (Red Sox), Jhonatan Escudero (Cardinals) and Yeizer Marrugo (Orioles); left-handed pitchers Carlos Diaz (Giants), Kevin Escorcia (White Sox), Gregory Nappo (Marlins) and Dewin Perez (Cardinals); catcher Jesus Posso (Phillies); infielders Dilson Herrera (Mets), Mauricio Ramos (Royals) and Adrian Sanchez (Nationals); and outfielders Tito Polo (Pirates), Harold Ramirez (Pirates), Reynaldo Rodriguez (Twins) and Carlos Vidal (Yankees).
France will be managed by former Major League closer Eric Gagne, who served as the team's pitching coach during the 2013 qualifier. During his 10-year career, the 2003 NL Cy Young Award winner and three-time All-Star recorded 187 saves, including a record-setting 84 consecutive successful saves from '02-04. Catcher Andy Patz (A's) is the lone affiliated player on the team's 28-man roster.
Spain will be skippered by Manny Crespo, who was the team's bench coach during the 2013 WBC, as well as the '09 IBAF World Cup and '10 European Championship. During its WBC debut in '13, Spain went 0-3 after going 3-1 in the qualifier, which it won with a 9-7 victory over Israel in the final game. Spain will feature four affiliated players: right-handed pitchers Rogelio Armenteros (Astros), Lazaro Leyva (Orioles) and Carlos Sierra (Astros); and infielder Luis Guillorme (Mets).
Each qualifier features a six-game modified double-elimination format. The composition of the pools was determined after venues were selected, with consideration given to competitive balance, existing rivalries and each national team's geographic location.
The qualifiers were introduced prior to the 2013 World Baseball Classic, when they were held in Panama City; Regensburg, Germany; Jupiter, Fla.; and Taipei, Taiwan during the fall of '12. The inaugural World Baseball Classic was held in '06 prior to ensuing editions in '09 and '13.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.