Return trip: Japan, Netherlands semis-bound

Return trip: Japan, Netherlands semis-bound

TOKYO -- It's Japan, again. And it's the Netherlands, again.

It's the same two teams as four years ago, coming out of the Tokyo second-round pool and qualifying for the World Baseball Classic semifinals. It's the same two teams this year, this time heading to Dodger Stadium to meet the two teams that advance out of Pool F in San Diego.

But don't get the idea that Japan and the Netherlands are the same as the teams that lost to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, respectively, in the WBC 2013 semifinals at San Francisco's AT&T Park.

They're not. They're better.

The Japanese team -- which beat Israel, 8-3, on Wednesday -- has a better lineup, and as China manager John McLaren noted in the first round, Japan seems more unified and looks to be having more fun than the group that lost in San Francisco four years ago. The Netherlands squad -- which routed Cuba, 14-1, on Wednesday (Tuesday night in the U.S.) -- is more experienced than the last one, full of players who were top prospects in 2013 but are Major League stars today.

Makita seals Japan's win

Japan, the two-time World Baseball Classic champions, will play the second-place team from Pool F on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium (9 p.m. ET live on MLB.TV and MLB Network). The Dutch will face the Pool F winner Monday (9 p.m. ET live on MLB.TV and MLB Network).

While Japan and the Netherlands both go to Los Angeles as underdogs, the people who watched them win their way through Pool E this week believe both teams have a chance to win.

"I think any one of the four teams that end up in L.A. can win it," said Israel manager Jerry Weinstein, whose team lost to both the Netherlands and Japan this week. "With the offensive firepower the Netherlands has and the pitching depth and funkiness Japan has, I think they can be very competitive.

"I think they've got their work cut out for them, but I know these two teams will be able to compete with the teams that come out of San Diego. It won't be easy, though."

Japan chose a team almost entirely composed of players who compete domestically in Nippon Professional Baseball. Outfielder Norichika Aoki of the Astros is the only Major League player on the team, and he was actually one of Japan's worst hitters in the first two rounds (4-for-20, 1 RBI in five games).

Tsutsugoh's solo homer

Cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh was more successful, winning Most Valuable Player honors in the first round and hitting the home run that broke a scoreless tie in the sixth inning of Japan's 8-3 win against Israel on Wednesday. Japan also got big production from Sho Nakata, who hit three home runs, and Tetsuto Yamada.

All of them are big stars in professional baseball in Japan, as is Netherlands cleanup hitter Wladimir Balentien, a former Major Leaguer who was named the Most Valuable Player in Pool E. Balentien went 8-for-13 with three home runs and 10 RBIs in three second-round games.

Balentien's five-RBI game

The Netherlands scored double-digit runs in its final two games in Tokyo, powered by a lineup in which Balentien is surrounded by Major Leaguers. Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts, Jurickson Profar, Didi Gregorius and Jonathan Schoop are all familiar to American baseball fans. The Dutch pitchers aren't as familiar, but Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen said Wednesday he will join the team for the semifinals.

Profar's three-hit night

Japan will not have Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, who chose to remain with their Major League teams for Spring Training. But the Japanese feature an impressive and deep bullpen, and manager Hiroki Kokubo isn't afraid to use all his relievers.

Kokubo, a former professional player in Japan, was hired as Japan's manager after the 2013 semifinal loss, and he was charged with building a team that could bring a championship back home. Japan won the World Baseball Classic in both 2006 and '09, and the loss to Puerto Rico four years ago still stings.

The Netherlands surprised people just by reaching the semifinals four years ago, but from the time this year's tournament began, the Dutch players have talked about getting back and winning this year.

"It's not a secret anymore," manager Hensley Meulens said. "These guys are proven Major League stars. Hopefully we can win two more games."

They believe they can. The Japanese believe they can win it.

Both teams believe the results will be different than they were four years ago.

The World Baseball Classic runs through March 22. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for Pool F games in San Diego's Petco Park and the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.