The most intriguing game of the baseball season -- at least until the playoffs start -- takes place Saturday night at Marlins Park in Miami. It will pit the Dominican Republic versus the United States in the World Baseball Classic in a game that’s already sold out and guaranteed to include a large, raucous contingent of Dominican fans. If you’re not buying into the intrigue for a game played on March 11 in a tournament that doesn’t feature NCAA teams, at least consider this: There may be more talent on the field for this game than any other this season.
Just compare the starting lineups from last year’s All-Star Game versus the potential starting lineups for Saturday, with 2016 wins above replacement totals:
OK, so the All-Star starters have the higher combined WAR, 98.7 to 82.9. Thanks, Mike Trout, for ruining my hypothesis. The totals would be a lot closer if we had better starting pitchers. I could have cheated and listed Tanner Roark (5.5 WAR), who is expected to follow Marcus Stroman on the mound for Team USA. Johnny Cueto is one of the pitchers in the Dominican pitching pool, but he isn’t on the roster for this round, so if Roark and Cueto were the starters, the difference would have been a mere 5.4 WAR.
Anyway, you get the idea. Former major leaguer Ryan Dempster came out of retirement and started for Canada against the Dominican on Thursday and said it was like facing an All-Star team. That’s because it is an All-Star team. Five of the nine players in the lineup listed above for the Dominican hit at least 32 home runs, and two others hit .300. There is no chance to catch your breath.
The Dominicans, looking to defend their WBC title from 2013, pounded Canada 9-2 as Castillo hit a two-run homer off Dempster and Bautista crushed a long three-run homer to left field as part of a 3-for-4 game. The U.S. beat Colombia on Friday, so while Saturday’s game isn’t a must-win for either team, it does put the losing team in a potential must-win situation Sunday.
Beyond that, there’s just good old-fashioned pride at stake. Guys want to win, whether representing their regular team or their country. There’s also the obvious clash of styles, although I think you’ll see the Americans playing with a little more liveliness and enthusiasm than you would during a random game in the middle of July. And not that the U.S. has to prove it’s good at this game, but it hasn’t fared well in the tournament, finishing fourth in 2009 and failing to make the semifinals in either 2006 or 2013.
The two sides have met just once in the WBC, in the second round in 2013, with the Dominican Republic winning 3-1 as Samuel Deduno allowed one run in four innings, Kelvin Herrera tossed two scoreless innings, while the Dominicans scored twice off Craig Kimbrel in the ninth.
The Dominican does have a strategic advantage entering the game. They had the day off Friday, while the U.S. will have to play three games in three days. This is when the tournament’s pitcher-usage rules will come into play. A pitcher can’t pitch three days in a row, and he must sit out a day if he throws at least 30 pitches (and longer if he throws at least 50 pitches). Since pitchers are also maxed out at 65 pitches for this round, that explains why U.S. manager Jim Leyland has apparently decided to use both Stroman and Roark in this game, knowing the bullpen will have to eat up a lot of innings over three days (and potentially four if a tiebreaker game is needed Monday).
That leaves Danny Duffy to start Sunday against a Canadian lineup that features more left-handed batters (including Freddie Freeman and Justin Morneau), and Drew Smyly has been added to the roster as the potential starter for Monday. The Dominican lineup is almost all right-handed, except for the switch-hitting Carlos Santana, with lefty Gregory Polanco and switch-hitters Jose Reyes and Jonathan Villar among their other options to start. So that means you’ll probably see a steady diet of right-handers out of the U.S. bullpen, with Luke Gregerson, Mychal Givens, Sam Dyson, Nate Jones, David Robertson, Tyler Clippard and Pat Neshek to choose from. Leyland hasn’t named his closer, but you have to think Andrew Miller will also appear at some point.
Leyland had to use six relievers in Friday's win for Team USA, but none reached the 30-pitch limit, so all are eligible to pitch Saturday. Even so, Leyland will have to be mindful of making sure he has enough relievers for Sunday as well, which means that the first three relievers out of the pen against the Dominican may be the three who didn't pitch Friday: Jake McGee, Robertson and Miller.
Edinson Volquez is the weak link for the Dominicans, coming off a rough season in which he posted a 5.37 ERA for the Royals before signing as a free agent with the Marlins. With Cueto unavailable, I thought manager Tony Pena would start Carlos Martinez, his best starter, against the U.S., but Martinez pitched against Canada, and Wily Peralta draws the game against Colombia. Of course, Volquez is a veteran major leaguer with the ability to shut down the U.S. lineup and turn the game over to a flame-throwing bullpen that includes Dellin Betances, Hansel Robles, Alex Colome, Hector Neris, Fernando Rodney and Jeurys Familia.
It’s going to be fun, so take a break at 6 p.m. ET from college hoops and turn on the World Baseball Classic. You may not see another game like it this year -- unless these two teams meet again later in the tournament.