All eyes on San Francisco for championship round
Japan, Dutch have already punched ticket, await Pool 2 winners in Classic
Two teams are on their way, already navigating from across the Pacific Ocean following successful ventures in the Far East. Two more will emerge from fierce battles this week more than 3,000 miles across the country in Miami.
Destination: San Francisco.
The center of the baseball universe last October, the City by the Bay will have the eyes of the baseball world on it again this weekend, as the World Baseball Classic's thrilling finale hits the field at AT&T Park for three straight days.
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Already, two-time defending-champion Japan and the upstart Kingdom of the Netherlands squad are headed to the bayside ballpark, each having earned a spot in the final foursome with their play in Taiwan and Japan over the past two weeks. Japan won the right to play in the first semifinal at 6 p.m. PT Sunday, and the Netherlands will play in Monday's second semifinal, also at 6 p.m. PT, with the winning teams from those games advancing to Tuesday's Classic final at 5 p.m. PT.
Tickets are still available to all three contests at AT&T Park, which when last seen as a baseball venue hosted Game 2 of the Giants' four-game sweep of the Tigers in the 2012 World Series.
The other two semifinalists remain unknown, awaiting the tense elimination round for Pool 2 in Miami. Team USA's quest to make the trip to the Bay Area remains very much alive after a 7-1 victory over Puerto Rico on Tuesday night. That sets up a Thursday showdown for Team USA vs. the Dominican Republic, which put itself in position to earn a spot in the semifinals by beating tournament surprise Italy in a 5-4 thriller in the Pool 2 opener earlier Tuesday in Miami. Puerto Rico and Italy meet Wednesday for the right to survive another day. Only two will advance to the semifinal round, with seeding decided in a Saturday pool final.
For any of the teams that advance to the semifinal round, an opportunity to play at the home venue of the defending World Series-champion Giants will be a perfect way to finish out what has been more than of frantic round-robin and elimination action.
For Hensley Meulens, manager of the Kingdom of the Netherlands team while on excused absence from his role as the Giants' batting coach, it's about coming home to AT&T Park. He obviously had to clear his managerial assignment with the Giants beforehand, receiving enthusiastic support from the organization hosting the event. With Joe Lefebvre temporarily taking the reins with hitters at Giants camp, Meulens had to leave the team with a plan -- and he made sure it got them through the four weeks it would take for his club to reach the championship round.
"I said, 'I'll be gone for four weeks,' so it came true -- I'll be gone for four weeks and I'm so happy that I can be representing the Giants and the Dutch in San Francisco next week," Meulens said as the Kingdom of the Netherlands wrapped up its first ticket to the semifinals.
Giants pitchers Ryan Vogelsong and Jeremy Affeldt still have an opportunity for a homecoming of their own if Team USA advances, as does center fielder Angel Pagan if Puerto Rico makes it, and reliever Santiago Casilla if the Dominican Republic reaches the semifinal round.
While preparing for their San Francisco trip, Japan and the Kingdom of the Netherlands will spend much of the week in the Phoenix area, getting in game action as Cactus League play continues. Japan will play the Giants on Thursday in Scottsdale, Ariz., and then the Cubs on Friday in Mesa, while the Kingdom of the Netherlands will play the Padres and Mariners those days in Peoria.
The Dutch, a surprise to advance through the pool round in 2009, marched their way to San Francisco by turning away perennial international power Cuba with a 7-6 walk-off thriller, eventually finishing second in Pool 1 to Japan. Former All-Star Andruw Jones, currently a free agent after playing for the Yankees in 2012, is the best-known member of the team with players who hail from the Netherlands as well as Curacao, Aruba and Netherlands Antilles. Roger Bernadina of the Nationals and Andrelton Simmons of the Braves are the only current big leaguers on the roster, with Simmons posting a .379 average and scoring a team-high nine runs so far.
Japan, meanwhile, was not considered much of a favorite to return to the semifinal round, since not a single Major League player was on its roster after Ichiro Suzuki played both times before and Daisuke Matsusaka and Yu Darvish became two of several players signed to the Majors after starring in the Classic. Always displaying a sound team concept with strong fundamentals -- and a sudden six-homer outburst in a Group 1 game against the Kingdom of the Netherlands, to boot -- Japan has advanced to within two victories of another title.
Talented teams like Korea and Venezuela have gone by the wayside. Two teams are in. Two more teams are coming, once they sort themselves out this week.
And, soon, the eyes of the baseball world will be on San Francisco again.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.