Ron Vesely/Getty ImagesIn 2016, the Chicago Cubs went into the season, and the playoffs, as the consensus top pick. And they actually won! Is MLB becoming more predictable?

You either love predictions or you hate them. Kind of like the movie "Titanic."

The 2016 season pretty much went as expected. The Chicago Cubs were the consensus best team heading into the season, and even though they hadn't won a title since 1908, they were a popular pick to win the World Series. And get this: They won the World Series!

None of the division winners were a surprise, either. Oh sure, maybe it was a coin flip choosing between the Washington Nationals and New York Mets, or the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, or the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, but still, the Mets, Blue Jays and Giants all made the playoffs.

In short, there were no major surprises at the team level.

As spring training winds down, this season has a similar sort of feel to it. It would be easy to pick the same six division winners as last year and not feel like you're just being lazy. The Cubs should be great again. The teams that were bad in 2016 mostly look like they'll be bad again.

I was wondering then: Is it getting easier to predict the standings, especially with more teams at the bottom -- especially in the National League -- in obvious rebuilding phases?

To study this, I found the preseason over/under win totals for the past 10 seasons from various betting sites and compared those to the final win totals for each team for that season, then added up all the differences.

So, 2016 did end up with the smallest difference between predicted and actual wins during this span, with an average miss of 5.9 wins per team, well below the 8.6 average of 2012, the most unpredictable year in the study. Of course, 2015 was one of the most unpredictable seasons as well, at least by this method, so we can't assume there is a trend developing based just on 2016.

Another way to examine this is to see how many teams have back-to-back winning seasons or back-to-back losing seasons. We can break down the 30 teams into four categories each year: winning season followed by winning season; losing season followed by losing season; winning-losing seasons and losing-winning seasons. Also included is the number of teams each year to make the playoffs after having a losing record the previous year. (For the purposes of this chart, 81 wins is counted as a winning season.)

We had 24 teams remain in their same column from 2015 -- the most of any year in the study. Only the Red Sox went from a losing team to the playoffs, and that was hardly a surprise. Again, however, the previous season we had the Mets jump from 79 wins to 90; the Cubs from 73 to 97; the Texas Rangers from 67 to 88; and the Houston Astros from 70 to 86. All four made the playoffs and all four had winning records again in 2016 (the Astros were the only one to miss the playoffs). In retrospect, they all look like teams that transitioned into stable success, but they all exceeded their over/unders in 2015 by at least nine wins, so they weren't consensus playoff picks. They were, generally speaking, surprises.

We had no such teams in 2016. The three teams that went from losers to winners -- the fewest of any year in the study -- were the Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners. The Tigers and Mariners had both been over .500 in 2014, so they've just been in a yo-yo effect the past few seasons.

What's interesting is that you'd think the two-wild-card system would create more "go for it" mentalities, and thus more unpredictability in the results, but the general trend is fewer teams oscillating from winners to losers or vice versa.

Some of this is simply that front offices are so much better at evaluating their talent than a decade ago. If you know you're likely to miss the playoffs, you're going to strategize accordingly and play it more conservatively. Or, as what happened in the National League last season, you had several teams embarking on a rebuild all at the same time (or continuing rebuilds). That made it easy for the winning teams from 2015 to win again in 2016.

Is there a surprise team in store for 2017?

It may be worth noting that the most unpredictable team over the past decade -- at least in comparison to its over/under number -- is the Arizona Diamondbacks. They've missed their over/under by a total of 118.5 wins -- almost 12 wins per year on average. Last year, their over/under was 84.5; they won just 69. In 2011, their over/under was 72.5; they won 94. Maybe they accomplish this year what many thought they were going to accomplish last year.

It's also worth noting that of 31 ESPN baseball personnel to make predictions in 2016, only one of them -- ESPN Insider contributor Tony Blengino -- picked the Cleveland Indians to represent the American League in the World Series.

So even the most predictable of seasons can have some unpredictability to it.

Tim Clayton/Getty ImagesBuster Posey won the first Gold Glove of his career last season.

For the first time in nearly a decade, the reigning National League Gold Glove Award winner at catcher is someone other than Yadier Molina, and with that honor comes the transfer of the title of best defensive catcher in baseball.

San Francisco Giants backstop Buster Posey won his first Gold Glove in 2016, ending Molina's eight-year run. Posey doesn't fit the mold of a Molina or some of the other "best in the game" catchers who came before him. Unlike those catchers, what makes him great isn't necessarily the deterrent value of his throwing arm.

Yes, Posey throws out would-be base stealers at a slightly above-average clip (33 percent in 2016), but he isn't in the realm of Molina or AL Gold Glove winner Salvador Perez, against whom baserunners are often given the red light.

Instead, Posey excels at just about everything else a catcher does.

A Giants-rooting colleague of mine said of Posey, "He's perfect." Last season, he was the closest thing to it -- the best in the game in three areas of catcher defense.

Teammate Hunter Pence once said of Posey: "It's hard to really quantify how special he is."

Not anymore. Now we have the ability to measure his excellence thanks to the advanced stats that are now an accepted part of the game.

Pitch framing

We're now able to take the location of every pitch and, based on the count, determine how often that pitch is called a strike. Catchers who can get strikes on pitches that aren't often called strikes and who ensure that their pitchers get strikes on pitches that should be called strikes are considered to be artists in what is known as pitch framing.

Posey is a superstar in that regard. He caught more than 17,000 pitches during the 2016 season, and he got a major-league-best 241 more strikes than the average catcher would have gotten on the same number of pitches. The only catcher in the same stratosphere was Yasmani Grandal of the Dodgers, at 221. The next-best after that was Miguel Montero of the Cubs, at 118.5.

Posey's total is high because he catches frequently, but even if you look at the stat on a "per-pitch basis" (a rate stat), he tops the charts. He has excelled in this statistic the past five seasons, but he had never finished higher than fourth in any version of the stat.

PoseyESPN Stats & InformationBuster Posey's ability to get extra strikes for his pitchers can be seen in and out of the strike zone.

Posey is a master at both "stealing" strikes (he had a major-league-high 213 strikes on pitches shown to have less than a 25 percent chance of being called a strike) and getting the calls he should (he had only 64 pitches with greater than 75 percent strike probability called balls). Posey's ratio of 213 "stolen" to 64 "lost" (a little better than 3-to-1) is the best in the majors and overwhelmingly better than the MLB average of 1.1-to-1.

How does he do it? For that, we turn to Matt Burns, a catching instructor currently working with Division III Skidmore College in New York, who regularly tweets video and GIF examples to provide instruction:

"One thing Posey does incredibly well is catching the low pitch by beating the ball to the spot," Burns said. "If he catches it while his glove is moving toward the dirt, the momentum carries his glove when the ball hits it. The goal is to work the glove back toward the strike zone as the pitch hits his glove, so as to appear he's catching it there.

"He does three things in the process that allow him to be successful doing that. One, he keeps his body and, more importantly, his head very still. Similar to hitting, the more still and 'quiet' his head is, the better he will be able to track the pitch, thus allowing him to get his receiving thumb at the bottom of the ball before it gets there.

"Two, he uses what I call the 'cobra' better than most catchers. He flashes the glove for a target, recoils it to relax his arm and then works to -- and sometimes through -- the ball. The 'cobra' allows him to be loose. The looser he is, the stronger he can be at framing. It's similar to a baserunner taking a lead. If he's in his stance longer, the more stiff and slow he'll be out of the jump. By relaxing the glove hand, he's loose, quick and can 'stick' a pitch to a spot more effectively.

"Three, he moves the ball just slightly rather than suddenly and in a jerky motion. It's always back toward the strike zone rather than pushing it out of the zone first."

One of the biggest beneficiaries of Posey's frame work was his former teammate, reliever Sergio Romo, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Romo ranked third in the majors in strikes looking above average among relief pitchers the past two seasons. Former Giants teammate Santiago Casilla ranked first. Watch the second strikeout in this clip for a good example.

"I think for [Buster], it's the extra attention to detail," Romo said earlier this spring. "The fact that he goes in there and understands the pitchers and the movement they have. Also, the way he receives the ball: It's not like you're throwing it against a wall. He's there receiving it with a sense of suaveness."

Pitch blocking

You can measure a catcher's ability to block pitches in a rather simple manner, as is done by the data-providing company Baseball Info Solutions. It takes every pitch that is thrown in the dirt with a man on base and marks whether the runner(s) advanced. If the runner didn't advance, the pitch is scored as a successful block.

Posey blocked 414 pitches in the dirt last season and finished with only two passed balls and 19 wild pitches. Dividing the number of blocks by the number of block opportunities (blocks plus passed balls and wild pitches) results in Posey's block rate of 95 percent. That was the highest block rate among everyday catchers, bettered only by that of Rangers backup Robinson Chirinos (97 percent), who caught 399 innings last season.

In some cases, a successful Posey block didn't just mean a baserunner held. It meant a baserunner lost.

not supportedTwo seasons ago, Posey's block rate was 92.9 percent, which ranked outside the top 10. Over the course of one season, the difference between what Posey was and what Posey is now is about 10 wild pitches/passed balls, which definitely makes him a run-saver.

Posey's improvements date back to his collegiate days. Florida State assistant baseball coach Mike Martin Jr. remembered pitch-blocking being the biggest challenge when Posey made the conversion from shortstop to catcher his sophomore year. Because his hands were so good, Posey had a tendency to pick the ball out of the dirt with his glove, rather than block it.

Posey provided insight into his progress:

"I look at guys who do things well," Posey said, "whether it is watching Molina throw or someone block balls to see if there is a way I can apply it to my game."

Buster Posey, San Francisco GiantsSamuel Stringer/Icon SportswirePosey has improved in several areas of his game since he converted from shortstop to catcher in college.

Longtime minor league manager Jerry Weinstein (who managed Israel in the World Baseball Classic) cited Posey's "soft body that is relaxed and can absorb the ball" rather than let it roll far enough away for a baserunner to advance.

"The way he moves back there," Romo said, "he understands immediately when certain pitches might hit the ground or certain pitches go more horizontal. He watches a lot of film. The best way I can describe how he does everything is the attention to detail. He understands from the way the ball moves from each guy, arm angles and stuff like that, if guys tend to throw certain pitches in the dirt more. He knows those percentages."

Bunt defense

The catcher is not usually the player who fields bunts. He's usually the one calling out the base to which the pitcher, first baseman or third baseman should throw. But Posey is an aggressive bunt defender.

not supportedPosey led all players -- not just catchers -- in bunt defense last season. Baseball Info Solutions credited him with four defensive runs saved, even though he fielded only 17 bunt attempts. Out of the 11 sacrifice attempts he fielded, only three were successful (meaning he threw out the lead runner in other instances). The average catcher would allow six. Of the six attempts at bunt hits that he fielded (bunts with no one on base), only one resulted in a hit (the average catcher allows slightly more than one). Posey also turned three bunt double plays all within a 15-day span in August.

"He has really good footwork, middle infielder's footwork, and he has really good catch-and-throw skills," said Matt Duffy, Posey's former teammate, former Giants third baseman and current Rays shortstop. "I don't know if he's always anticipating it, but the way he pops out of his squat, he's quick, man."

"It's impressive how explosive he is out of that stance to get to the ball so quickly," Burns said. "The difference between getting the lead runner and having to throw to first base is purely how fast he gets to the ball.

"As he's picking the ball up, he's working himself into throwing position so he doesn't have to turn the shoulders after getting the ball. That allows him to get the ball out of his hand as fast as possible. He also always picks the ball up with his bare hand. It's more efficient and lessens the risk of dropping the ball. It cuts down on time that a glove-to-hand transition would take."

Martin said Posey's bunt defense success makes total sense, given his history.

"That goes back to his shortstop days, throwing on the run, getting to things quickly and making accurate throws," Martin said. "Him pouncing on the ball and throwing it from a low-arm slot -- that's easy for him."

The math adds up

Defensive Runs Saved combines all of the things a catcher needs to do to be successful, from halting steal attempts to defending bunts to pitch blocking and framing to blocking the plate, and compares a catcher to the others on his team to gauge how pitchers are faring when he's behind the plate.

Posey finished with 23 defensive runs saved as a catcher last season, and 20 of them came from the three skills noted above. That led the majors by eight runs. Go through three seasons of data, and that nets a 17-run differential (48 to 31) over Jonathan Lucroy of the Texas Rangers.

Posey's crown as the game's top defender doesn't come as a surprise to his collegiate coach. Martin remembered Posey's fifth game as a catcher, when Posey was so close to the plate that his hand got crushed by a swing from UNC Asheville's Kevin Mattison. It resulted in catcher's interference and almost something worse.

"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, he broke his hand,'" Martin said.

Posey, he said, was unfazed.

"I knew from the get-go that he was going to be a star," Martin said. "He had the hands, the work ethic, the knowledge and all the incredible attributes he has. It was apparent he was a bona fide stud."

Posey might not be perfect, as my colleague professed, but by the eye test and the numbers, he's as good as it gets behind the plate.

Marcus Stroman is USA's main man

March, 23, 2017
Mar 23

LOS ANGELES -- Maybe now Marcus Stroman can move forward with being the guy who can, and leave the little-guy-who-could moniker long behind him.

The Toronto Blue Jays starter might be 5-foot-8, but nobody towered over the proceedings more than he did Wednesday.

Stroman took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic, ultimately leading the United States to an 8-0 victory over Puerto Rico. It was Team USA's first title in four WBC tournaments, setting off a confetti-laced celebration at Dodger Stadium.

Thanks to a hitless six innings where he faced the minimum 18 batters over six innings, Stroman went deeper into the game than was planned. He did not mind it one bit.

U.S. pitcher Marcus StromanAP Photo/Jae C. Hong"I love pitching in these moments; I love the atmosphere," Marcus Stroman said. "I feel like the bigger the game, the more I'm able to get up, the more effective I am.

When Angel Pagan finally stroked a leadoff single to open the seventh inning, Stroman was removed by manager Jim Leyland and the crowd of 51,565 roared its approval of the effort. Stroman rode a confident stride back to the dugout.

"I love pitching in these moments; I love the atmosphere," Stroman said. "I feel like the bigger the game, the more I'm able to get up, the more effective I am. I truly try to pride myself on being a big-game pitcher. This was probably one of the biggest if not the biggest game I've ever pitched in, and that was just a nod to coming off with a lead and giving us an opportunity to win that game."

Stroman gave a shoutout to the defense, which was highlighted by an impressive effort form shortstop Brandon Crawford in particular. But this was about Stroman, changing speeds, keeping the ball down and pounding the strike zone. It was a stark contrast to his previous outing against Puerto Rico in the tournament's second round when he gave up six consecutive hits at one point.

"It's baseball so sometimes those hits fall, sometimes they don't," Stroman said when comparing the most recent outing against Puerto Rico to the one last week. "But I think ultimately I was a little more effective with my location and my sinker. I was down more. Last time I was a little up. I was able to vary timings today."

Stroman's confidence only grew as the game progressed.

"He got the better of us this time," said Puerto Rico's Carlos Correa, who went 0-for-2 against Stroman, and 0-for-3 in the game. "He was good. He messed with our timing today and he was the story."

Stroman could have played in this WBC for either team, since his mother is of Puerto Rican heritage, but said that had nothing to do with his inspiration Wednesday. In 2013, he suggested he might play for Puerto Rico but joined Team USA instead.

"No, I think it's just more emphasis on just winning for America, for the United States," Stroman said, brushing aside a suggestion that beating Puerto Rico made the WBC title even better. "Obviously, this is our first win. We've had a few early exits in the past. So each and every guy came into this with one goal, and that was to win it. There was no one that kind of went about it lackadaisical. Everyone was into every single pitch.

"And we had that pride and faith in every single guy on this team, and we kind of formed a camaraderie over the last two weeks extremely quick. We grew as a unit, and it felt by the end of it that we've been playing for a while. So I love these guys. It was an unbelievable experience, and I'll be back in four years to defend the title."video

LOS ANGELES -- A pitcher from a Canadian club, who could have suited up for Puerto Rico, was the United States' hero in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic.

Marcus Stroman had the opportunity to pitch for the opponent, because his mother is of Puerto Rican heritage, but instead led the way in giving the USA its first WBC title in the fourth iteration of the tournament.

The Toronto Blue Jays starter was simply dominating in leading the United States to an 8-0 victory in the winner-take-all contest. He carried a no-hitter after six innings and had faced the minimum 18 batters before Angel Pagan opened the seventh with a single.

Marcus StromanHarry How/Getty ImagesMarcus Stroman dominated Puerto Rico and led the United States to its first WBC title.

Stroman was immediately removed from the game by USA manager Jim Leyland as his pitch count reached 73. The limit for pitches in the championship round was 95, but Leyland has remained respectful to clubs by not overusing pitchers in the tournament.

Ian Kinsler delivered a two-run home run in the third inning for Team USA, and Brandon Crawford added a two-run single in a three-run seventh inning.

The United States club ran through a daunting series of opponents in taking the title. They had to first triumph in a winner-take-all second-round elimination game Saturday against defending champion Dominican Republic.

Japan awaited in the semifinals Tuesday, but was handed its first loss of the tournament -- a 2-1 Team USA victory. In the United States' only other WBC semifinal appearance in 2009, the Americans were defeated by Japan.

In Wednesday's championship game, the United States got through a Puerto Rico club that had been 7-0 in the WBC to that point. Stroman was simply dominating -- inducing weak contact on ground balls and walking only one batter that was wiped from the bases on a second-inning double play.

Three things to know:

1. Revenge for Stroman

Stroman could not overcome Puerto Rico in the second round. The right-hander took the loss, giving up six consecutive singles to Puerto Rico that day and four first-inning runs.

Stroman did settle down in that one, though, going his final 4⅔ innings without allowing a run, giving him some momentum heading into Wednesday's outing.

The Blue Jays' pitcher also fared well in the first round against the Dominican Republic with 4⅔ innings, giving him a dominating WBC outside of that first inning against Puerto Rico in Round 2.

The former first-round draft pick has a 3.91 ERA over three seasons, going 9-10 with a 4.37 ERA for the Blue Jays last season.

2. Controversy followed Kinsler into the championship game, but it didn't affect his performance

Prior to the game, Kinsler was quoted in The New York Times trying to say that the United States' more stoic style of play should not be ignored. It was taken by some as a knock on the energetic styles of Puerto and the Dominican Republic.

Before the game, Kinsler offered a clarification of the quote to ESPN's Marly Rivera, saying, in part, "Everybody has their own style. That's all I was saying."

The situation did not seem to be a distraction to the veteran infielder, who hit his two-run home run in his first at-bat. He later added a single and another run scored.

"This is what this tournament is for, to demonstrate the game in all walks of life, all over the globe," Kinsler said. "… Everyone should be celebrated."

3. Team USA's Nolan Arenado was a contributor on defense and not much else

Arenado struck out in his first two at-bats in the title game, giving him a stretch of seven consecutive at-bats in the tournament with a strikeout, going back to the second round. The streak started after he hit into a double play in USA's victory over the Dominican Republic on Saturday, and ended when he failed to move a runner over on a bunt attempt in the fifth inning.

The Colorado Rockies' star did deliver a single in the seventh inning, breaking an 0-for-11 slide.

USA manager Jim Leyland never wavered in using Arenado, the Gold Glove winner, who gave the USA some lock-down defense on the left side of the infield with shortstop Brandon Crawford.

U.S. pitcher Marcus StromanAP Photo/Jae C. HongMarcus Stroman dominated Puerto Rico's lineup and did not allow a hit through six innings in the final of the World Baseball Classic.

Now that was a tournament to remember. While Team USA kicks off celebrating its rout of Puerto Rico in the championship game, let's take a look back at the most exciting moments the 2017 World Baseball Classic had to offer:

Marcus Stroman delivers a gem

Ian Kinsler staked the U.S. to a 2-0 lead in Wednesday's championship game with a home run, but Stroman stole the show with a dominant performance, taking a no-hitter into the seventh and leaving the game to a standing ovation in the Americans' 8-0 win over Puerto Rico.

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Israel starts out 4-0

After going 3-0 in the first round in its first WBC, including a 10-inning upset over Korea, Israel started the second round with a 4-1 win over Cuba. The ride ended after that, with losses to the Netherlands and Japan.

not supportedDrew Smyly fans six in a row.

The most dominant pitching performance of the tournament might have been the Mariners lefty's performance against Venezuela in the second round, in which he struck out eight in 4T innings, including the final six batters he faced -- Martin Prado, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Rougned Odor, Alcides Escobar and Carlos Gonzalez.

not supportedManny Machado’s throw from the third-base concession stand

Machado and Carlos Correa were highlight reels at third base all tournament, but this play to throw out Cabrera was the best.

not supportedItaly stuns Mexico

Trailing 9-5 in the bottom of the ninth off their first-round game, Italy scored five runs off Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna -- without making an out.

not supportedJose Bautista breaks the hearts of Colombia

With Colombia on the verge of a monumental first-round upset over the Dominicans, Bautista saved the day by throwing out the winning run in the bottom of the ninth, sending the game to extra innings, where the D.R. would prevail.

not supportedNelson Cruz goes yard off Andrew Miller

In the Dominican Republic’s dramatic win over the U.S. in the first round, Miller tried to slip an 0-2 slider past Cruz. He didn’t, and Cruz launched a three-run homer to give the D.R. a 6-5 lead and send the Dominican fans in Miami into an all-night party.

not supportedEdwin Diaz throwing smoke

In a tense, 11-inning victory over the Netherlands in the semifinals, Puerto Rico’s Diaz struck out the side in the 10th and then got out of the two-on jam in the 11th, when WBC rule puts two runners on base to start the inning. Yes, he was pumped up, and, yes, that’s three Mariners on this list. The Mariners haven’t played this well since 2001.

not supportedJavier Baez's no-look tag and celebration

I have never seen this before. You have never seen this before. That’s because I’m pretty sure it has never happened before. As Willy Wonka once said, “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”

not supportedThe Adam Jones catch

Jones robbed Orioles teammate Machado in the seventh inning against the Dominican Republic in a game that determined which team would advance to the semifinals.

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videoThe World Baseball Classic isn't perfect. The late starts on the West Coast aren't optimal, as fans on the East Coast or in Puerto Rico had to stay up past midnight to see the exciting finishes to the semifinal games. The games have been sloppy at times -- the Netherlands had two crucial baserunning mistakes in its loss to Puerto Rico, for example, and Japan had two defensive miscues that led to two United States runs in the rainy conditions Tuesday. What's more, purists weren't exactly writing baseball poetry about the rule that puts runners on first and second to start the 11th inning.

As always, however, the game ends up selling itself, and the games have been dramatic. Let's hope the championship game between the U.S. and undefeated Puerto Rico matches the level of excitement we've seen so far. Here are a few things to look for:

Seth Lugo, the man of the hour: The former 34th-round pick was born and grew up in Louisiana, went to college in Louisiana and pitches for the Mets, but he's now the pride of Puerto Rico, as he will face off against U.S. starter Marcus Stroman. Lugo got shelled in Triple-A last year but was pressed into service in the Mets' rotation, and he excelled with a 2.67 ERA in 64 innings while relying on a tight curveball that showcased the highest spin rate in the majors.

Seth LugoMiguel Tovar/Getty ImagesHow Seth Lugo fares could determine if Puerto Rico becomes the World Baseball Classic champion.

Lugo started against the U.S. in Puerto Rico's 6-5 win in the second round. He allowed five hits and three runs in 5 2/3 innings (Adam Jones and Buster Posey homered off him). Puerto Rico doesn't have the bullpen depth that the U.S. does, so there is more pressure on Lugo to pitch and pitch deeper into the game.

Will Edwin Diaz be available? Yes. After he threw two innings and 19 pitches on Monday (not including an intentional walk), there was concern that the Mariners wouldn't allow Diaz to pitch in the championship game because it's unusual for a closer to throw two innings in spring training, especially when you're as amped up as Diaz was, throwing 100 miles per hour. The Mariners -- and Puerto Rico -- did luck out when Diaz had to throw only four pitches in his second inning, thanks to a first-pitch, inning-ending double play. After Diaz reportedly asked to be made available, the Mariners relented.

"What he's going through right now should be a big, big benefit for him," Mariners manager Scott Servais told reporters Tuesday. "The only way to go through that is to experience it, and hopefully we'll benefit from that quite a bit down the road."

It seems unlikely, however, that Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez would extend Diaz past one inning.

Let's discuss Jim Leyland: In the USA's win over Japan, Leyland made the absolute most indefensible move of the tournament, creating a minor meltdown on Twitter and stirring up memories that Tigers fans had stashed in the deepest, darkest recesses of their minds. Of course, the move worked. Leading 2-1 in the eighth, he removed Mark Melancon with two on and two outs after just 11 pitches and brought in sidearmer Pat Neshek to face Japan's best hitter, Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh, who happens to bat left-handed. Neshek happened to allow a .646 slugging percentage against lefties last season, which means he basically turned the average left-handed batter into David Ortiz. Tsutsugoh flew out to right field.

In other words, there's no way of knowing how Leyland will handle the bullpen: In theory, every U.S. reliever should be available. I'm guessing that was part of Leyland's thinking: Don't allow any one reliever to throw too many pitches. Andrew Miller faced just three batters, though he did throw 17 pitches. Still, he should be ready to get two or three outs Wednesday. The one guy you might not see is Nate Jones, who pitched 1 1/3 innings on Tuesday.

The Puerto Rico lineup should be exclusively right-handed and switch-hitters, so it’s a better matchup for Stroman than if a left-hander had been slated to start, and Leyland's deep arsenal of right-handed relievers plays to Team USA's strength.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesNolan Arenado has slumped during the WBC, but expect him to be in the cleanup spot against Puerto Rico.

Will Nolan Arenado be in the U.S. lineup? Although Leyland hasn’t found many at-bats for Daniel Murphy or Paul Goldschmidt -- primarily sticking with Ian Kinsler at second base and Eric Hosmer at first -- he has stuck with Arenado in the cleanup spot. The Rockies' All-Star is just 3-for-26 in the tournament and went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Japan (he has had just one four-strikeout game in the majors). That gives him six K's in two games.

My guess is Arenado still starts, as Alex Bregman has just four at-bats in the tournament. Leyland could give Murphy the start at third base, but he might not want to sacrifice defense, and reacting to such a small sample of plate appearances is a little silly. Murphy could get the start at DH to get another left-handed bat in the lineup.

How does Puerto Rico bridge the gap to Diaz? Rodriguez keeps pulling the right strings, including a quick hook with Jorge Lopez in the semifinal game in favor of veteran lefty Hector Santiago, who started 33 games in the majors last season but has pitched out of the bullpen in this series. However, Santiago threw 63 pitches, so he isn't eligible to pitch in the final. Obviously, the best-case scenario is for Lugo to get at least six innings out of his 95-pitch limit, but if he struggles, look for Twins right-hander Jose Berrios to be the long man out of the pen.

The genius of Yadier Molina, future Hall of Famer: He's throwing runners out, blocking the plate, coaxing good work out of a relatively inexperienced pitching staff, dropping down bunts, keeping the Gatorade dispenser full and generally serving as the spiritual leader of Team Puerto Rico. Molina, by the way, is signed only through 2017 (with a mutual option for 2018 that Molina is certain to reject), and talk of a new contract has been a controversy of late in St. Louis, especially after older brother Bengie went on MLB Network Radio a few days ago and lamented that no extension has been signed. Molina turns 35 in July, and though it's difficult to imagine him leaving the Cardinals, the Cards once let Albert Pujols walk away.

What spectacular things will Carlos Correa and Javier Baez do? Watch the game, and find out!

LOS ANGELES -- The United States earned a trip to its first World Baseball Classic championship game when the host team held off Japan 2-1 in Tuesday’s semifinal.

The United States will face Puerto Rico in the winner-take-all final on Wednesday at Dodger Stadium.

In three previous WBC tournaments, the United States had advanced to the semifinals just once, when it lost to Japan 9-4 in 2009. Revenge proved difficult to achieve Tuesday, but Team USA prevailed, thanks to some unexpected defensive miscues from Team Japan.

Many members of Team USA stressed the need for a well-played game against the fundamentally sound Japan team. But a fourth-inning error from Japan second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi led to the United States’ first run on an Andrew McCutchen single.

Luke GregersonKelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

With drums and horns serenading Japan’s every move on offense, Kikuchi redeemed himself in the sixth inning with a game-tying home run off reliever Nate Jones.

The United States took the lead in the eighth inning on an Adam Jones groundout that was bobbled by Japan third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda. The brief misplay allowed Brandon Crawford to score from third base. Crawford had singled and moved to third on an Ian Kinsler double.

“It means a heckuva lot,” McCutchen said when asked if never having made the title game had been a burden on Team USA. “We have a great group of guys on this team who have dedicated this time to be able to try and win some ballgames. A sacrifice had to be made. There are no egos when that door opens, and that is what is good about this team.

“Everybody is a superstar, everybody is a three-hole hitter, but somebody has to hit seventh, somebody has to hit eighth. There are no egos, even with the pitching. That is first and foremost what has allowed this team to get this far.”

In his first start of the WBC, Team USA’s Tanner Roark held Japan scoreless over the first four innings and gave up just two hits. Despite the game's being played in Los Angeles, the United States was the visiting team, with Luke Gregerson closing out the victory in the bottom of the ninth inning.

As tough as Japan was to overcome Tuesday, the United States will face another major challenger in Puerto Rico, a team that is 7-0 in this tournament. Puerto Rico defeated the United States 6-5 in a second-round game Friday in San Diego.

The United States is scheduled to send right-hander Marcus Stroman to the mound in the title game. Stroman has a 3.86 ERA in his two previous WBC starts. Puerto Rico will counter with Seth Lugo, who has won both of his starts in this tournament. Lugo has allowed just three runs in 11 WBC innings.

Three things to know:

1. United States starter Roark was electric Tuesday, even though he had pitched just 1 1/3 innings in the WBC -- in a relief appearance. The Washington Nationals pitcher was in sync against Japan. He said he prepared himself with a couple of bullpen sessions since his Team USA outing 10 days prior.

Roark gave up just two hits in his four innings of work, and he allowed a walk and recorded a strikeout. He kept Japan off-balance for most of his 48 pitches, as nearly all of his outing came during light rain.

Why just 48 pitches, when 95 is the limit for this round? Roark admitted he was on a 50-pitch limit.

“I haven’t faced live hitters in nine days or so, so they brought the pitch count down a little bit,” he said. “I felt good to stay out there, but you know … yeah.”

The outing continued a strong run of starting pitching for Team USA. In seven games of the tournament, the starters have combined for a 1.50 ERA.

Roark even managed some self-preservation, as a hard line drive from Japan’s Shogo Akiyama in the third inning appeared to connect perfectly with Roark’s glove.

2. The pitchers’ duel Tuesday was nothing like the previous time Team Japan and Team USA met in a WBC semifinal. In a game at Dodger Stadium on March 22, 2009, the teams not only combined for 13 runs but also made four errors, with the United States making three.

Jimmy Rollins had four hits for the United States that day, and Mark DeRosa drove in two runs. Brian Roberts hit a home run.

Japan pounded out 10 hits in earning a berth in the championship game. It went on to win the WBC title with a victory over South Korea the next day. Ichiro Suzuki, Norichika Aoki, Kosuke Fukudome, Kenji Johjima and Munenori Kawasaki played for Team Japan in that semifinal against the United States. Daisuke Matsuzaka was the starting pitcher, and Yu Darvish pitched one inning of relief.

3. Jonathan Lucroy is expected to be the starting catcher for the United States on Wednesday -- not Buster Posey. The move surprised some, considering Posey has helped the San Francisco Giants to three World Series titles and Wednesday’s game is for a championship, after all.

But U.S. manager Jim Leyland always planned to rotate his catchers, and Wednesday is Lucroy’s turn to start behind the plate. Posey started in the semifinal Tuesday.

“I would really feel bad if somebody thought we weren't trying to win because we were catching Jonathan Lucroy,” Leyland said. “This guy's a good player. He's a real good player. If there's anybody in the United States right now that doesn't think we're trying to win this thing and putting what we feel is the best team out there each and every day, then they really haven't been following it like they should.”

Leyland said he should have given more playing time to guys such as Alex Bregman, Josh Harrison and Daniel Murphy, but he felt confident about the way he handled his catchers.

“As far as the catching, that's a no-brainer,” Leyland said. “I would like to think that anybody that's a baseball fan would understand the way we're handling the catching. We think it's the proper way to do it.”

JapanAP Photo/Toru Takahashi

I am not an expert on Japanese baseball, but after watching most of the World Baseball Classic games, conducting a little research and reading coverage on the internet -- including English-language coverage from Japan -- I’ve come to the following conclusions:

1. I have no idea whether this Japanese team is as strong as the teams that won the first two WBCs in 2006 and 2009.
2. This team absolutely can win its next two games and go undefeated in the tournament, as the Dominican Republic did in 2013.

Japan went 6-0 in the first two rounds, joining those Dominicans and the 2006 South Korea squad as the only teams to enter the semifinals without a loss. That’s impressive, but Japan played in two weak groups, with a Cuba team that has hemorrhaged talent to the major leagues in recent years, and caught a break when South Korea was knocked out in the first round. How good is Japan as we look to Tuesday’s semifinal game against the United States at Dodger Stadium? Team Japan keeps winning, but other than Nori Aoki, we can’t name a player on the team.

My hunch is that this team isn’t as good, based on a few factors:

Aoki has been hitting third: No offense, but Aoki is only a fringe MLB regular at this point, hitting .283/.349/.388 for the Seattle Mariners last season. If Aoki is hitting third, what does that say about the rest of the lineup? The 2006 and 2009 lineups featured an in-his-prime Ichiro Suzuki, former Chicago Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, former Tampa Bay Rays infielder Akinori Iwamura and a 20-something Aoki instead of a 35-year-old Aoki. The 2009 lineup added then-Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima. All those players had some level of success in the U.S. -- not that playing in the U.S. is the sole indicator of ability, but it does give us a better read on those players.

Is there an ace? The 2006 team featured Daisuke Matsuzaka, who allowed one run in four innings in the championship game against Cuba, a performance that helped lead to a big contract with the Boston Red Sox the following season. Matsuzaka’s career in the U.S. is viewed as a disappointment, but that’s a little unfair. Although he was infuriating to watch as he nibbled at the corners, he went 15-12 with a 4.40 ERA in 2007 (worth 4.1 WAR) and helped the Red Sox win the World Series. He followed that with an 18-3 record and 2.90 ERA in 2008 (5.3 WAR). Matsuzaka got hurt in 2009 -- after throwing 4 2/3 innings to help knock out the U.S. in the semifinals of the WBC -- and was never really healthy again. Koji Uehara, then a star starter in Japan, had pitched seven scoreless innings to beat South Korea in the 2006 semis.

Hisashi Iwakuma started the 2009 final against South Korea, allowing two runs in 7 2/3 innings, but that team also boasted a young Yu Darvish as its closer, and Masahiro Tanaka pitched an inning in relief against the U.S. With Matsuzaka, Darvish and Tanaka, the team had three pitchers who could match the best major leaguers in velocity -- again, not that velocity is everything, as Uehara and Iwakuma have had plenty of success in the U.S. while living off mediocre fastballs and great splitters.

Quality of competition: In the first round, Japan beat Cuba, Australia and China. In the second round, Japan beat the Netherlands, Israel and Cuba. That isn't exactly murderers' row. It took Japan 11 innings, with help from the extra-inning rule, to beat the Netherlands, the one team with some legit major league talent on the roster, and Cuba scored 11 runs in its two losses to Japan. This team simply hasn't faced a team that comes close to the depth of the U.S. lineup and pitching staff.

OK, enough with the negativity. Here are a few reasons Japan can win this thing:

Tomoyuki Sugano: Regarded as the second-best pitcher in Japan (behind Shohei Otani) after posting a 2.01 ERA for Yomiuri and striking out 189 batters in 183 1/3 innings, Sugano will start against the U.S. Although he struggled against Cuba in the second round, allowing seven hits and four runs in four innings, his track record in Japan is strong. The 27-year-old right-hander once clocked in the mid-90s, but he now sits at 91 with his fastball and reportedly throws seven pitches, including the proverbial forkball/splitter that so many Japanese pitchers possess.

Bullpen depth: The pen has allowed eight runs in 30 innings, with right-handers Ryo Akiyoshi, Yoshihisa Hirano and Kazuhisa Makita appearing in five of the six games so far. Manager Hiroki Kokubo will undoubtedly have a quick hook on Sugano if he isn't sharp and can mix and match out of the pen. He has submariners, sidearmers, junkballers, fireballers and everything in between to give the U.S. a variety of looks.

Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh is the big slugger in the lineup: Tsutsugoh is coming off a 44-homer season in the Nippon League, and his major league translation, courtesy of Dan Szymborski, is .284/.349/.498. He has been playing left field for Japan, though he might come out for defense late in the game. While I have no doubt that he can hit in the U.S., he looks very slow and might not have a position (he came up as a third baseman), so he probably isn’t a strong bet to come to MLB at some point. He does, however, have three home runs in this tournament.

Tetsuto Yamada at second base: Yamada is coming off a season in which he hit .304 with 38 home runs, 30 steals in 32 attempts and 97 walks in Japan. He has been DHing and leading off, with Ryosuke Kikuchi playing second and batting second. If Yamada can play second base -- he made just four errors in 141 games last season -- he looks like a player who could cross the Pacific with great success.

In Japan, the WBC is almost viewed as a national holiday. If Japan can win for the third time in four tournaments, you know they’ll be celebrating in the streets of Tokyo.

LOS ANGELES -- When Adam Jones reached behind the wall at San Diego’s Petco Park this past weekend to rob a late-inning home run, he might have brought back more than a baseball.

It is likely that the Team USA center fielder hauled in some eyeballs to the final games of the World Baseball Classic, as the semifinals of the tournament continue Tuesday with the United States facing Japan.

The United States’ victory over the Dominican Republic is what got the team to Los Angeles for a winner-take-all trip to the finals, and Jones’ catch in Saturday’s deciding pool game also gave the tournament a look-what-you-have-been-missing moment.

It came as no surprise that on Monday, Jones was still being asked about his seventh-inning robbery of Baltimore Orioles teammate Manny Machado. With the U.S. clinging to a two-run lead, Jones broke back on Machado’s drive and appeared to get half of his body above the low center-field wall to make the memorable catch.

Adam JonesAP Photo/Gregory BullAdam Jones' jaw-dropping catch robbed the Dominican Republic of a home run, and brought a different level of attention to the WBC.

“I play 27 outs. It's just how I play,” Jones said when asked to relive the moment. “It doesn't matter how I'm feeling -- I'm going to give it my all until that game is over. I've seen it all over SportsCenter and all the various outlets of the catch, and it was great. But that was last game. Now I need to do something to help my team win against Japan.”

One more victory would give the United States a berth in the WBC championship game against Puerto Rico, which defeated the Netherlands on Monday in the other semifinal.

The United States has never advanced beyond the semifinals in the previous three WBC tournaments and has played in the semifinals just once, in 2009, when Team USA lost to Japan. Meanwhile, the U.S. will be facing a Japanese team that won the first two WBC tournaments, in 2006 and 2009.

Japan’s roster has just one major leaguer, Nori Aoki, so the expectations for what the United States will see Tuesday are about style more than name recognition.

“What I know about them is that they play a very clean game -- fundamentally sound,” Jones said. “They move runners over. They hit behind the runners. They bunt. They don't make many errors fielding. They are a very, very fundamentally sound team.”

Team USA first baseman Eric Hosmer was teammates with Aoki in Kansas City, but that’s about where the familiarity with Team Japan ends.

“I think it's a team that's going to capitalize on another team making mistakes,” Hosmer said. “So we just want to stick to playing our game. We know the type of game that we can play, and we feel good when we play those games, and we feel that we'll be successful on most nights if we can execute the things we're going to try to execute. So that's basically what we're going to try to stick to.”

U.S. manager Jim Leyland will send Washington Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark to the mound in Tuesday’s win-or-go-home game. Roark has just one appearance in the WBC so far, and it was not especially pretty. He gave up three runs on three hits over 1 1/3 relief innings in a March 11 defeat to the Dominican Republic.

When he last started a game that mattered, Roark pitched in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, in which the Nationals defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Nationals eventually lost the series.

The right-hander was comfortable calling Tuesday’s start the biggest of his baseball career.

“So far, yes, I'd say so, with the single-elimination and everything,” he said. “Go out there, and leave it all out on the field.”

Tanner RoarkJuan Salas/Icon SportswireTaking the mound for Tuesday's do-or-die game against Japan in the WBC semifinals, Team USA's Tanner Roark called the game the "biggest" of his baseball career.

With barely more than an inning of work in the past two weeks, Roark said he has tried to stay sharp with throwing sessions in the bullpen. He added that he has been staying mentally focused on games, “just watching how the hitters react and just watching and trying to learn as much as I can from all these guys.”

Roark will pitch opposite Japan’s Tomoyuki Sugano, who has a 5.40 ERA in two starts. The right-hander gave up one run in 4 1/3 innings as Japan won a first-round decision against Cuba. Then he gave up four runs in four innings against the same Cuban team in the second round. He offered his feelings heading into Tuesday’s elimination game:

“Really, it's finally here. That's how I feel,” Sugano said through an interpreter. “[On Tuesday], for sure we'll win and advance to the final. That's how I feel.”

If there is anything Team USA knows about Sugano, it's that he is confident.

“Well, obviously, I don't know a whole lot about him, to be honest with you,” Leyland said. “I saw him pitch on television when I was watching this event. You know, he's obviously very good. He wouldn't be pitching this game if he wasn't.

“The thing that stuck out in my mind was he hasn't walked anybody. He's obviously got very good control. We're getting some information from the people that have seen him. And he's obviously a very good pitcher, or he wouldn't be representing Japan.”

If Team USA is worried about facing an unknown in such a key game, it was not evident at their Monday workout. During batting practice, Jones shouted a request from the field for some hip-hop music. About a minute later, the playlist was changed. Jones continues to go to great lengths to get what he and Team USA need.

“I've been to the ALCS, and those were obviously my biggest games because obviously the magnitude and what it meant for MLB,” Jones said. “But aside from MLB and the WBC, this is the most important game that we're playing outside of our culture of our own team. So it's special.

“I'm glad that we've garnered more attention as the USA team, and we've got more people on our back now, more people on board with the WBC," Jones said. "A lot of people are saying this is good and bad for the league, but I think when USA is still in it, I think people jump on board, and I think that we can do something special.”video

LOS ANGELES -- Puerto Rico will get one more chance to conquer the world as it heads back to the World Baseball Classic championship game.

Puerto Rico, the tournament’s runner-up four years ago, advanced to the title game again with a dramatic 4-3 victory in 11 innings over the Netherlands on Monday in a game that was decided on the tournament’s extra-inning rule.

Starting in the 11th inning, both teams are allowed a runner on first and second base to begin the inning. The Netherlands blew its chance after a sacrifice bunt and a double-play grounder by Curt Smith. Puerto Rico also tried a sacrifice bunt but won the game when Eddie Rosario followed with a sacrifice fly to center field, which scored Carlos Correa.

Puerto Rico will face the winner of Tuesday’s semifinal game between the United States and Japan.

Puerto RicoGary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY SportsCarlos Correa, who scored the winning run on Monday, celebrated with his teammates after Puerto Rico earned a second straight trip to the World Baseball Classic final.

In the 2013 tournament, Puerto Rico ran into the buzz saw that was a Dominican Republic team that ended up going 8-0 en route to the title. Now Puerto Rico can do the same thing if it takes Wednesday’s title game.

"The aspect that highlights this team compared to 2013 truly is the talent," Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "We have a bank of talent that is wider than in 2013. There are more options. Not only the ones in the lineup, but also we have more options in our reserve players, and that is a huge difference."

The tone was set by Puerto Rico catcher Yadier Molina, who threw out two baserunners in the first inning. The Netherlands took an early 2-0 lead in the first on a home run from Wladimir Balentin, but Puerto Rico came back to tie it on a two-run home run by Correa.

"The first thing we want to do when we're so intense is just to calm down, take control of the emotions and have the abilities take care of the game. In my case, I didn't feel any pressure," Correa said. "I just stood at third base and waited. When I'm batting, I didn't feel any pressure. Simply, when I feel that I'm all excited, I tried to calm down, breathe deep, and concentrate on what we're doing. This is something that we rehearse every day. So we will be able to do it well at the end."

In front of a mostly pro-Puerto Rico crowd of 24,865, both bullpens put on a classic duel. Before the deciding 11th inning, neither team had scored since the fifth, when the Netherlands tied it 3-3.

Three key things to know:

1. Puerto Rico’s masked wrecking ball: The defense of St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is no secret, yet it still seemed to catch the Netherlands off-guard Monday. Not only was Andrelton Simmons picked off second base by Molina, but also Jurickson Profar was thrown out by Molina when he wasn’t paying attention at first base following a base hit.

"For me, that was the game," Rodriguez said. "That first inning that Yadi Molina did what he did, for me, that was the game. Then again, Yadier Molina came to play."

It looked like the Netherlands was going to take the lead on a fifth-inning double by Shawn Zarraga, but Molina grabbed a quick relay throw from Javier Baez and tagged Jonathan Schoop out at the plate. The Netherlands never scored again.

Don’t blame the Netherlands players for not knowing what they were up against. Simmons, Profar and Schoop are all major leaguers and should have known better, yet Molina still managed to make his mark.

It has been an impressive tournament for Molina, who has been the heart and soul of an undefeated Puerto Rico team. He was MVP of Pool F, the grouping the team steamrollered to advance to Monday’s semifinal. Not only has Molina’s defense been plus, but also he batted .353 in the first six games, with two home runs and six RBIs.

2. Relieved to be in the final: Puerto Rico starter Jorge Lopez was shaky at the outset and was pulled after 2 2/3 innings, even though his team had the lead. It was the bullpen that saved the day, starting with left-hander Hector Santiago.

The Los Angeles Angels product backed Lopez with a solid 3 1/3 innings, giving up just one run while throwing 60 pitches. Fellow left-hander Alex Claudio later delivered 1 1/3 innings of scoreless baseball. Joseph Colon and Edwin Diaz also delivered scoreless outings for Puerto Rico, with more than an inning of work each.

Diaz was huge with a perfect 10th inning, then getting shutting down the Netherlands in the 11th even with two free runners aboard. He hopes his parent club, the Seattle Mariners, will clear him to pitch again in Wednesday’s title game.

"I am ready to throw on Wednesday," Diaz said. "I'm going to talk to my organization to see because it's the last game. And I think that I have a day of rest because we're off. So I'm going to try to talk to the organization and see if they give me the break, because they have worked with me fine, and I hope they say yes."

There was little margin for error for the Puerto Rico relievers. If the Netherlands took a late lead, the team had Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen looming in the bullpen. Jansen got his chance to pitch with a dominating 10th inning, but the game was only tied at the time.

3. Bashing Balentin: There is no telling where the Netherlands would have been without Balentin, but reaching the semifinals of the WBC would have been unlikely. He hit his fourth home run of the tournament in the first inning and showed off a pronounced bat flip to go with the blast.

He added a double off the top of the wall in the fifth inning and scored the run that tied the game 3-3. After a seventh-inning single, Balentin had delivered 16 hits for his club in seven games.

He also got into an on-field dispute with Puerto Rico reliever Diaz. That emptied both benches, but there was no further incident, and Diaz followed by striking out Balentin.

All that offensive firepower was of no surprise to Balentin's regular team, the Yakult Swallows of the Japan Central League. In fact, Balentin hit a Nippon Professional Baseball-record 60 home runs in 2013, breaking the previous mark of 55. He has hit 31 home runs in four other seasons with Yakult.

Balentin was once property of the Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds before he moved to Japan. In 511 major league at-bats, he hit 15 home runs.

Puerto RicoDenis Poroy/Getty ImagesWhat began as a joke for the Puerto Rican team quickly became a uniting force, one that has even sparked a phenomenon back home.

SAN DIEGO -- It's not as if Brad Pitt, Chris Hemsworth or Robert Redford are on the roster, but there is a lot of blond hair in the Puerto Rico dugout.

While the Dominican Republic has excelled in the past two World Baseball Classics with the help of "Plantain Power," Puerto Rico has boosted its own performance this tournament with Blond Bonding. The players have done so by dyeing their hair blond, a move that has also caught on with many of their fans.

"What started as a joke has become a national thing," Puerto Rico's Enrique Hernandez said. "There is a big part of the island dyeing their hair, believe it or not. One of my mom's good friend's sister went to the pharmacy to dye her hair but there was no hair color or bleach to be found in the pharmacy. That tells you how much everybody is believing in this.

"For us, it started as a joke to show how much we are committed to each other. Now, the whole island doing it means a lot. And we can definitely feel the spirit they're showing."

Puerto Rico infielders Javier Baez and Francisco Lindor had dyed their hair blond before the WBC. After catcher Yadier Molina saw their hair when the team gathered in Arizona to train for the tournament, he encouraged everyone to dye theirs as well. Pretty soon, just about everyone did.

Yadier MolinaGregory Bull/AP PhotoYadier Molina's blond 'do seems to be working for him.

"I think it's awesome. It shows the unity we have as a team," infielder Mike Aviles said. "It wasn't something we did just to do, it was like, 'We're going to do something together for brotherhood.' ... When you have a team like that, it shows the solidarity with everybody. It shows that unity, that brotherhood, and that's what we're all about.

"It's to the point where people in Puerto Rico, in Little League and things like that, they're dyeing their hair because they want to show, 'We're with you guys. We can't be there but we're with you guys.' It just shows how a small little island can come together and do something big."

Some players dyed all their hair blond along with their beards, while others just did certain areas. The dyed hair looks good on some players, but it makes Carlos Beltran look so much older than his 39 years that he has been called Santa Claus. "As long as Santa Claus continues to hit, I'm OK with that," Beltran said.

Hernandez said how the dye looks doesn't matter.

"It is what it is. We're not going for looks," he said. "This is a team thing. So who cares if we look good or not? We're just trying to win some ballgames."

And they have. Puerto Rico has won all six games it has played in this WBC so far, advancing to the championship round in Los Angeles this week.

Puerto Rico Alex Trautwig/WBCI/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesThe platinum hues look better on some than others, but it's not about looks. Rather, the club is intent on creating a sense of unity.

Asked whether he would dye his hair if Puerto Rico wins the WBC, manager Edwin Rodriguez said he would do so before then.

"I have to do it," he said. "There's so much pressure from the players, I have to do it."

The issue for Rodriguez is that he doesn't have any hair on his head. But perhaps he can find an alternative, as coach Carlos Delgado did.

"I've got no hair so I had to dye my goatee," Delgado said.

The hair-dyeing wasn't the first thing that brought the Puerto Rican team together, though. Rather, Hernandez said it was when Molina gathered everyone's cell phone numbers during the winter and had the team communicate via WhatsApp, a social messaging app.

"We all started chatting and sending jokes and making fun of each other. Because that's what we do in Puerto Rico," Hernandez said. "Not all of us knew each other, but when we got to Phoenix [for training] we felt like we all knew each other for our whole lives.

"We're not just playing good baseball because we're a good team. We're playing well because we all get along and have a real chemistry."

Puerto Rico Alex Trautwig/WBCI/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesEven Puerto Rico's fans are having their blond moment.

Hernandez said that he might retouch his hair for Opening Day if he makes the Los Angeles Dodgers' roster, though he said he will not add any blue to the coloring.

So what can other countries' players do with their hair to improve their competitive odds?

"That's a good question," Aviles said. "They can't do blond because that's what we've got. They'll have to come up with something different. But it's definitely fun and cool."

Hensley MeulensAP Photo/Toru TakahashiManager Hensley Meulens has the Netherlands surging in the World Baseball Classic semifinal.

LOS ANGELES -- The Netherlands could be the signature team of this World Baseball Classic, thanks to a roster built of multiple ethnicities with myriad languages spoken in its clubhouse.

Here is one way to represent the team’s ability to bridge those cultures: One teammate from Curacao and another of Dutch ancestry recently bought out an American fast-food joint in South Korea to supply the postgame spread for everybody on the team.

The Popeyes Louisiana Chicken location in Seoul was apparently closed for two days before it could restock its supply after Didi Gregorius and Rick Van den Hurk helped fuel their club at the start of a run that ultimately led to a berth in Monday’s WBC semifinals.

The Netherlands will face undefeated Puerto Rico on Monday at Dodger Stadium, with a ticket to Wednesday’s WBC championship game on the line. The other semifinal, which is Tuesday night, will match Japan against the United States.

“We know now these guys are ready for the challenge,” Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens said. “We have our pitching together. You know, we're ready to go.”

What the Netherlands is not -- at least not anymore -- is an extreme underdog story. That came in previous WBCs, when the team, largely comprising players from Holland, along with some from Curacao and Aruba, defied the odds.

In the 2009 tournament, the Netherlands pulled off two legendary upsets against the Dominican Republic, the first of which was aided by a strong-armed catcher named Kenley Jansen, who threw out speedy Willy Taveras trying to steal third base in the ninth inning. By the time the second upset of the Dominican Republic was completed a few days later, the secret of the club had been revealed.

In 2013, the Netherlands took things a step further, earning a spot in the semifinals, this time with Jansen as a relief pitcher. But the Dominican Republic got its revenge and went on to win a title.

Now, the Netherlands will get another crack at making it to a WBC final backed by position players who come mostly from former Dutch colonies in the southern Caribbean, as well as a number of pitchers who are of Dutch descent.

There are as many as five languages spoken in the clubhouse at any one time, with the mix brought together by Meulens, the San Francisco Giants' hitting coach who has been part of three World Series titles in the past seven years.

At the core of the talented Netherlands team is a gaggle of insanely talented shortstops in Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons and Xander Bogaerts. Simmons is this team’s shortstop.

Andrelton Simmons #2 of the NetherlandsMatt Roberts/Getty ImagesAndrelton Simmons is one of three talented shortstops on the Netherlands roster. Xander Bogaerts and Didi Gregorius have shifted to other positions to make way for Simmons.

One of the best position players Holland has ever produced, Stijn van der Meer, is nowhere near breaking through at shortstop in this group, and he's realistic about his place on the club's depth chart.

“I knew what I was signing up for," he said. "I mean, Didi and Boagerts are amazed by things that Simmons can do at short, so we are all understanding of our roles."

Gregorius has helped the team as the designated hitter. Boagerts has played third base. Jurickson Profar has moved to center field to alleviate the infield logjam. Nobody complains.

“By the way, they haven’t made any errors,” Meulens said, gushing about his roster of players willing to go wherever they are needed. “None of them.”

Boagerts lets out a laugh when asked about players willing to drop their egos and do what is best for the team.

“I mean, you could put any one of us at short, but obviously, honestly, Simmons is the best, so he has to play there,” Boagerts said. “Playing third base, I played there my first year [at the WBC], so that wasn't something new to me this year because I've done it before. But you're not going to take Simmons' spot at shortstop.”

This shortstop battle is nothing new. Gregorius and Simmons have been playing together since they were six. Boagerts was a few years younger, so he didn’t join the group until he was around 12. They play with the trust of siblings. They act like brothers.

“Like any of the guys that play infield, you can put them at short, and they'll do the job,” Simmons said. “Hensley put me there for most of the games, and I'm happy with that. But, I mean, it shows the versatility of the other guys too to be able to adjust and go to another position and still do a great job. So we've got a lot of infield talent. I mean, you can pick your poison. Any other guy can stand in there and do the same job.”

The trust of the position players has permeated the roster.

Hensley MeulensMatt Roberts/Getty ImagesNetherlands manager Hensley Meulens, the Giants' hitting coach who has been part of three World Series titles in the past seven years, expertly brings together a mix of players.

“[Meulens] has done a great job of recruiting these kids to have the spirit of the country in mind, most of them from Curacao, Holland, Aruba, to join together and get to where we’re at,” Netherlands pitching coach and Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven said. “It’s the players and what we have done on the field that has gotten us here, but the leadership of ‘Bam-Bam’ has shown in this tournament.”

“Bam-Bam,” is Meulens’ nickname, of course, a moniker that apparently was both a “Flintstones” reference and a way to describe his power ability as a youngster. Meulens was the first major leaguer from Curacao and can further make his own mark on the game this week.

“Hensley is very important and is doing an excellent job of managing the team,” said Bart Volkerijk, the president of the Royal Dutch Baseball and Softball Federation. “He has the feeling about what it is like to both play and coach at the highest level, and that is something we need.”

Helping Meulens’ decision-making this week will be the ability to call Jansen from the bullpen. The Dodgers’ closer said he was not ready to join the Netherlands’ team as it played in the Far East for the first two rounds of the tournament, but he is ready to contribute now.

“This team is one, it’s a family, and everybody is together,” Jansen said shortly before joining his first workout with his national team Sunday. “Everybody is loving being here right now. Hensley, seeing what he did with the Giants and seeing how they became a dynasty over there in the Bay Area, with him as the batting coach, he has a lot of experience doing this, and it’s great to have him here.”

The Netherlands will face a stern test Monday against a red-hot Puerto Rico team, but as it learned in 2009, nobody is unbeatable. It is a team made up of players from varying backgrounds, and it could, in fact, have an entire continent of support.

“We are from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but in the meanwhile, we have noticed that it is important to be from Europe and get that [baseball] message all over Europe,” Volkerijk said. “It gives kids who are Czech or in France or in Spain a perspective of getting to the highest level of sports because that’s what you do it for. To play sports is healthy, but kids have ambition to go as far as possible, and we give a perspective of playing this game at the highest level.”

Eric HosmerDenis Poroy/Getty ImagesEric Hosmer has rewarded manager Jim Leyland's confidence so far at first base with a strong tournament.

The World Baseball Classic has had more thrills and plot twists than Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway opening an envelope at the Academy Awards. Winners have become losers, losers have become winners, and the unexpected has become expected.

No more round-robin pool play. We’ve reached the semifinals, with three games in three days at Dodger Stadium. Puerto Rico defeated the Netherlands to reach Wednesday's championship game. The United States plays unbeaten Japan on Tuesday for the other spot in the title clash (all games at 9 p.m. ET on MLB Network, with ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN providing Spanish-language coverage). If only we could coax Vin Scully out of retirement to call a few innings.

Here’s a viewer’s guide to what to watch:

So explain those rules again. Now that we’re out of pool play, we don’t have to worry about the complicated tiebreaking process. There are, however, a few rules to be aware of:

1. Pitchers are now allowed to throw a maximum of 95 pitches, up from 80 in the previous round. If a pitcher throws at least 30 pitches, he must sit a day, so this could come into play in the U.S.-Japan game, without a day off before the championship.

2. Starting in the 11th inning, the team at bat will have runners on first and second base to start the inning.

3. Instant replay will be used as it is in MLB, except there is no managerial challenge available.

How is Puerto Rico unbeaten? They’ve been the most impressive team in the tournament, outscoring their opponents 55-19, including two blowouts over Venezuela and 3-1 and 6-5 wins over the Dominican Republic and U.S., respectively, in the second round before outlasting Netherlands in extra innings. Carlos Correa has led the offense with 3 home runs, 9 RBIs and a .400 average, while Carlos Beltran is hitting .476 and Francisco Lindor .435 with a couple of home runs.

Jorge Lopez
AP Photo/Luis GutierrezJorge Lopez will take the ball for Puerto Rico's semifinal against the Netherlands.

The surprise has been a pitching staff that, on paper, lacked the depth, especially in the bullpen, of the U.S. or D.R., but manager Edwin Rodriguez has mixed up his starting pitchers and deftly managed the relievers. Mariners closer Edwin Diaz gives the staff a legitimate MLB closer as the ninth-inning guy.

How is Japan 6-0? Let’s be honest: Japan faced a much easier road to the semifinals, especially with Korea getting knocked out in the first round. The Cuban team was much weaker than past editions, so that left Japan with only one reasonably tough opponent in six games, and it beat the Netherlands in 11 innings, taking advantage of the two-baserunner extra-inning rule to score two runs.

That doesn’t mean the Japanese aren’t a threat to win their third WBC in four tournaments. They’ve hit 10 home runs in their six games, although let’s see if that power translates from the friendlier confines of the Tokyo Dome to Dodger Stadium. Without a hard-throwing ace like Daisuke Matsuzaka or Yu Darvish to rely upon, as the team did in 2006 and 2009, manager Hiroki Kokubo has turned to his bullpen. Ryo Akiyoshi, Kazuhisa Makita and Yoshihisa Hirano each have appeared in five games, with Makita picking up a win and two saves. A former starter for Seibu, Makita transferred to the bullpen in 2016 and recorded a 1.60 ERA, although he wasn’t the team’s closer.

How does the U.S. shape up? The most difficult thing for manager Jim Leyland is outlining a pitching strategy. Tanner Roark will start against Japan, while Marcus Stroman is lined up to get the ball if the U.S. reaches the final. Roark has pitched just once in the tournament, on March 11 against the D.R., and struggled with his command, allowing three runs and two walks in 1 1/3 innings. Stroman gave up six hits to start the game against Puerto Rico in the second round, although to be fair, a few of those were seeing-eye singles, and he settled down after that.

Roark, who had a 2.83 ERA for the Nationals in 2016, is certainly a fine starter, although the decision to start him over Chris Archer is odd, considering Archer had expected to return to the squad. Archer even pitched in a minor-league game Thursday to stay on schedule to pitch in the championship round. Instead, he was told to remain with the Rays and will start Wednesday in the Grapefruit League.

Perhaps Leyland felt a need to give Roark some work. Nationals manager Dusty Baker was upset when he woke up Sunday morning and learned that Roark hadn’t pitched in Saturday’s game, after being told Roark would be used over the weekend. Baker also was upset that Daniel Murphy hasn’t played much, with just six at-bats in six games.

The U.S. did call up Mark Melancon from its pitching pool for more bullpen depth. Without a day off between the semifinals and final, the likelihood is that Leyland wants to avoid using any of his relievers on back-to-back days, although since we’re deeper into spring training now, I wouldn’t rule out that possibility -- after all, everyone still wants to win, and there’s no reason to hold, say, Andrew Miller back if he throws 15 pitches in a semifinal victory.

Give me a player to watch on each remaining team. OK, let’s do it.

Puerto Rico: You can’t ignore Correa, who also has played an excellent third base, but Mets right-hander Seth Lugo is on schedule to start the championship game and could be the most important player on the roster. He started the Friday win over the U.S., allowing three runs in 5 2/3 innings, giving up home runs to Buster Posey and Adam Jones.

Japan: Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh. The 25-year-old left-handed slugger led Japan’s Pacific League with 44 home runs and has three home runs in the WBC. You have to think we’ll see Miller face him at some point.

United States: Eric Hosmer. It’s been a bit of surprise that Hosmer has basically become the first baseman over Paul Goldschmidt, which also has limited Murphy’s playing time when Goldschmidt is the DH, but he has rewarded Leyland’s confidence with a .381 average and no strikeouts in 21 at-bats.

SAN DIEGO -- United States ballplayers and Major League Baseball have received a fair amount of grief for their lack of interest in the World Baseball Classic: That some of the greatest U.S. players such as Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw declined to participate. That teams don't really want many players participating in it, either. That U.S. fans have much less interest compared to those from other countries such as the Dominican Republic and Japan.

And that despite baseball being America's national pastime, the U.S. had advanced to the championship round in only one previous WBC, in which it lost to Japan in a semifinal game.

Team USA, however, shot down that criticism Saturday night in impressive fashion.

Playing the Dominican Republic, the reigning WBC champion against which Team USA squandered a 5-0 lead in a loss last week in Miami, the Americans showed they can play with intensity as well. Despite falling behind 2-0 in the first inning and nearly giving up even more runs the next inning when the Dominican Republic put runners on second and third with nobody out, the U.S. rallied with an inspired effort to win 6-3 and reach the final round of the WBC at Dodger Stadium this coming week.

Adam JonesAP Photo/Gregory BullAdam Jones robbed his Orioles teammate, the Dominican Republic's Manny Machado, of a home run in the seventh inning and displayed the fire that Team USA has been accused of lacking.

The game drew a sellout crowd of 43,002 fans at Petco Park, the majority of them chanting "USA! USA!" when the Americans won. The U.S. players, meanwhile, slapped hands and exchanged high-fives like they have after many other victories, because that is the way they go about things and they know they still have more games to win.

"Like Adam Jones said, some of the teams show maybe physically a little more passion sometimes than we do, but don't get that confused with really not being into it and really not caring," manager Jim Leyland said. "It was a wonderful feeling. We're going to the finals. We beat a great team. I tip my hat to all the teams we've played so far, and we beat a great team tonight, and we held down a great lineup."

Asked earlier this week whether the U.S. players have as much fire inside as their opponents, catcher Buster Posey nodded and said, "100 percent."

"I think definitely here in the dugout, you know guys are into it and they care," Posey said, comparing the American players with those from other countries. "From an outsider's perspective, I don't know if a lot of guys' personalities are on display. We grow up in different parts of the world and play the game differently. I don't think it's really fair to players from different backgrounds to act a certain way for a tournament. But it doesn't mean there's less fire. There are just different ways we grew up playing the games."

Jones certainly showed that -- inside and out. Jones, a San Diego native, pumped his chest and hopped excitedly when he hit a game-tying home run Wednesday night that helped the U.S rally late to defeat Venezuela. He homered again the next game against Puerto Rico. And Saturday he made a miraculous catch over the center-field fence that robbed his Baltimore Orioles teammate Manny Machado of a home run that would have narrowed the score to 4-3.

Machado tipped his cap to Jones, who said he plans to give him "some ribbing" during the regular season. "And he robbed me of a hit earlier in the first inning, too," Jones said. "So it was just a little payback, just on a different situation."

Giancarlo Stanton also was important Saturday, singling and scoring the first run for the U.S. and then drilling a two-run home run over the left-field fence to give the Americans a 4-2 lead. He did so after not starting in the previous two games.

"That was the toughest part, without playing a couple days and understanding we've got to put the best guys out there who are feeling the best, too," Stanton said. "So you've got to lock it in ASAP and just get ready to go."

The U.S. will play in Tuesday's semifinal against Japan, the same team that knocked the Americans out of the 2009 semis at Dodger Stadium as well. Daisuke Matsuzaka was the winning pitcher for Japan in that game, which also featured Ichiro, Kosuke Fukudome and Kenji Johjima in the lineup. But this time, Japan has only one current major leaguer on the roster, Nori Aoki.

While it may not have the talent it had when it won the WBC title in 2006 and 2009 -- pitcher (and hitter) Shohei Otani, perhaps the best player in the world, isn't playing in this WBC because of an injury -- Japan still has won every game in this WBC.

"The style the Japanese play with is great," Jones said. "They play clean baseball. They're fundamentally sound. They hit behind the runners, they hit-and-run, they pitch, they play a great, clean game of baseball. I know our style here in the States is a little bit different. We have more power, more power pitchers.

"But at the end of the day, I respect the crap out of Japanese baseball, Japanese players and just how they carry their business."

The U.S. clearly deserves that respect as well.

"There were a lot of people that respectfully declined to play in the WBC, and we're not going to throw anybody under the bus," Leyland said. "We're going to honor the people that accepted and are here. So we're moving forward, and that's all we're talking about. ... And right now that's the only team I care about. And these players that are here are the only players I care about right now."

And the WBC is what the U.S. players care about as well as they head to Los Angeles for the final round while many of their teammates are readying themselves for the MLB regular season in spring training.

"At the end of the day I'm not representing the Orioles, Andrew McCutchen isn't representing the Pirates, Stanton is not representing the Marlins," Jones said. "We're representing the entire United States, and that right there is pretty special."

SAN DIEGO -- With a trip to the World Baseball Classic semifinals at stake for both teams, Petco Park was sold out for Saturday night's game between the United States and the Dominican Republic. The 43,002 fans were excited, with the Americans loudly chanting "USA! USA!" They'll have a chance to chant it again next week at Dodger Stadium after watching the U.S. beat the Dominican Republic 6-3 to advance to the final round.

The fans also could have shouted "Giancarlo! Giancarlo!" and "Adam! Adam!"

After singling and scoring Team USA's first run of the game to begin a comeback in the third inning, Giancarlo Stanton hit a two-run homer to give the Americans a 4-2 lead in the fourth. San Diego native Adam Jones helped protect that lead by making a fantastic leaping catch against the center-field fence to rob Orioles teammate Manny Machado of a home run in the seventh.

"I'm still in kind of shock that I even got to that ball. I mean, off the bat I'm just like this ball's hit really far, so just keep going, keep going," Jones said. "You know this California air's going to slow it down, and just never quit. That's just the style I play with. I don't mind running into a wall or two. I just kept going after the ball."

He added that, considering how Machado made a strong defensive play to throw him out on a grounder to third base in the first inning, Jones' catch evened things up with his teammate.

Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY SportsGiancarlo Stanton hit a two-run home run in the fourth inning to give the U.S. its first lead of the game.

The U.S. will play in the WBC semifinals for just the second time in the history of the tournament, which started in 2006.

Three key things to know:

1. Rough start, strong rally: The U.S. has been criticized for not showing nearly as much fire and passion on the field as other countries in the WBC. But the players say they play with the same fire, they just keep it hidden inside.

Team USA was facing the reigning WBC champions for the second time this tournament. The two faced off last weekend in Miami, with the U.S. taking a 5-0 lead into the sixth inning, only to lose the game. This time, the Americans fell behind early but rallied back.

The U.S. gave up two runs in the first inning after shortstop Brandon Crawford bobbled a grounder and then threw wildly to first base. Starting pitcher Danny Duffy also threw a wild pitch on a strikeout that helped the Dominican Republic score two runs that inning. The Dominicans threatened to blow the game open the next inning when Gregory Polanco singled and Welington Castillo doubled to put runners on second and third with nobody out. Duffy, however, retired the next two batters on a popup and a short fly out, then got Robinson Cano to ground out.

The Americans came back right after that. Stanton singled to lead off the third inning and scored on a fielder's choice grounder by Ian Kinsler. Christian Yelich then doubled home Kinsler to tie the game.

Stanton gave the U.S. the lead in the fourth inning by slamming a two-run homer that sailed over the fence at an estimated 113 mph.

It was the second comeback this round by the U.S., which rallied to beat Venezuela in the latter innings of Wednesday’s game in San Diego.

2. Not quite enough Platano Power: The Dominicans, meanwhile, are very passionate on the field. They also are well-known for the Platano Power bit started by reliever Fernando Rodney when they won the 2013 WBC. Several fans could be seen holding and waving the fruit (or inflatable replicas of it) in the stands.

Having rallied last week in Miami, the Dominicans had a chance to come back in the seventh inning when Machado drilled a pitch to deep center, only to have Jones leap, extend his glove over the fence and catch the ball. Machado doffed his cap in honor of the catch by his Baltimore teammate.

Cano followed with a drive to left field that cleared the fence for a home run that narrowed the gap to 4-3.

The U.S. re-extended the lead the next inning, though, when Andrew McCutchen doubled home two runs, showing that the Americans play hard as well. They also pitched well, allowing just two earned runs.

Rather than defend their WBC championship, the Dominicans now will head back to their spring training camps.

3. Next up, Japan. Again: The only other time the U.S. reached the WBC semifinals, in 2009, it played Japan at Dodger Stadium and lost 9-4 to starter Daisuke Matsuzaka. Interestingly, the Americans will play Japan again in the semifinal game Tuesday, though they will not be facing Dice-K this time.

They will try to reach the championship game for the first time.

Asked which starting pitcher the U.S. would use against Japan, manager Jim Leyland said, "I'm not prepared just yet to talk about my starter. So I'm just going to hold off on that a little bit."