MIAMI – Talking baseball while wondering how badly Tiger Woods blows away the field at Augusta:
1. Nothing against tulips, wooden shoes and Bert Blyleven, but I wish Monday’s 7-6 game in Tokyo had gone the other way. While it’s cool that the World Baseball Classic will have a European team in the finals for the first time, it would have been more fun to watch the Cubans in San Francisco than the Netherlands.
It would have been great to see them against the Japanese pitchers and hitters. Ditto those from the United States and the Dominican Republic, assuming the last two can advance out of this week’s semifinal pool, which also includes Puerto Rico and Italy.
No players created more excitement coming into the WBC than Abreu, the Cuban first baseman. A scout who watched the Cuban games from Japan told me this about Abreu: “I don’t know if he’s as good as he’s advertised – Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, guys like that – but he can really hit. Teams would fight to get him if he ever hit the market, especially American League teams.’’
Abreu hit .360 with three homers in 25 at-bats over Cuba’s six WBC games. He seemed a little too amped up at times, swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, but he was a force. The best Cuban hitter, as he usually is, was 32-year-old outfielder/DH Frederich Cepeda, who hit .474 with a ridiculous 1.510 OPS. He had seven walks against three strikeouts while hitting the ball hard almost every time pitches threw strikes.
If there was a surprise to scouts it was the talent that the Cubans had up the middle, 22-year-old shortstop Arruebarruena – “the cricket,’’ as he’s known – and 24-year-old second baseman Fernandez, who went 11-for-21 at the plate.
Betancourt, a 31-year-old right-hander who will probably never come to the big leagues, was Cuba’s best pitcher. He threw 10 2-3 scoreless innings in his two starts, striking out 11. Young right-handers Freddy Alvarez (23) and Raciel Iglesias (20) were impressive but there was no Aroldis Chapman on this year’s team.
2. If the Astros again pass on Mark Appel in this year’s draft, can the Cubs say no to him? Appel’s contract demands scared away the Astros last June and he declined to sign with the Pirates after sliding to the eighth pick overall. He is off to a staggeringly good start as a Stanford senior. While two unearned runs got him beat by UNLV last Friday, he struck out a career-high 15 over seven innings. It was the third start in a row in which he’s had at least 11 strikeouts. In this run against Fresno State, Texas and UNLV, he has struck out 40, walked 3 and allowed 10 hits in 25 innings, including nine-inning complete games with 110 and 105 pitches. Indiana State lefty Sean Manaea and Arkansas’ Ryne Stanek have been the other college pitchers most under consideration at the top of the draft but they may soon have company. Minnesota left-hander Tom Windle threw a no-hitter last Friday at the Metrodome, dominating Western Illinois, which had stolen a game against Arkansas when the Razorbacks were the No. 1 team in the country. Windle struck out eight and walked only one, needing 95 pitches to get through the nine innings. I wish I could be at the Metrodome this Friday. Windle is going to pitch against Manaea in one of those dream showcases.
3. As it turns out, Joe Torre looks brilliant holding Gio Gonzalez out for the first game of the semifinal pool, Tuesday night against Puerto Rico, although it would have been a different story had Team USA not rallied in the eighth inning against Canada on Sunday. Torre’s team didn’t get Justin Verlander, David Price or Clayton Kershaw for their rotation but starting pitching looks like a huge advantage for the U.S. in the Miami pool, which includes the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Italy. There’s a very good chance that R.A. Dickey and Ryan Vogelsong will be better the next time around than they were in Phoenix. Not that the U.S. can look ahead, but the way it’s lined up now Torre will have to decide between Derek Holland, Gonzalez and Dickey for the semifinal and possible championship game in San Francisco. Japan, which will play a couple exhibitions in Arizona while the Miami pool is being played, has the highly regarded Masahiro Tanaka and Kenta Maeda on track for those starts. The talk is that Torre wants Dickey to face Japan, as the knuckleball hasn’t come to the island yet.