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Thursday, March 2, 2006
Plenty of reasons to watch the WBC

By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com

Orville to Wilbur: It's not gonna work.
Wilbur: It's worth a try.
Orville: But the wing might snap off!
Wilbur: That's what the glue is for, dummy.
Orville: Shouldn't we be back home doing our regular work?
Wilbur: We'll do it when we get back.
Orville: People might not like flying. They're used to trains.
Wilbur: Why can't they have both? They might actually like the variety.
Orville: But it might rain. And it's kinda windy. And there's sand in my shoes...
Wilbur: Shut up and get out of the way, will you?

Thank goodness the games are here. After a full year of theories and complaints and predictions being swatted back and forth like shuttlecocks, the World Baseball Classic is finally upon us. Actual games. Actual matchups. Actual competitive baseball with a spice we've never tasted.

Even if you don't like the pitch limits, even if you don't care for the scheduling or injury risks or David Dellucci 's snubbing of his Italian roots, many upcoming moments will crane the necks of even the most rabid cynics. Here are eight we'll throw at you, even if it's a little early for such exertion:

1. Dominican Republic vs. Venezuela
This opening game of the tournament (besides the Asian first round) is easily the best matchup of them all. Venezuela plans to throw Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano and Tony Armas for 2-3 innings apiece at the vicious Dominican lineup (Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Tejada, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz ...). A win is vitally important to both clubs: The team that loses better not run into a hot Australian or Italian pitcher in its next two games, or it will face a shocking early elimination from the tournament.

2. Dos Carlos vs. Cuba
This opening-round duel is between the known and unknown. Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado are Puerto Rico's top stars and are immensely visible as New York Mets. But they could be silenced by an unknown but dangerous Cuban pitching staff. Youngster Danny Betancourt and veteran Pedro Luis Lazo both have live arms that can either start or close, and a slew of left-handers could handcuff Puerto Rico's lefty-leaning lineup. Well beyond the political intrigue of Puerto Rico vs. Cuba, this game will have tons of pure baseball intrigue, as well.

3. Nobuhiko Matsunaka vs. Team USA
The United States has almost no real test in the first round -- just Mexico, Canada and the dreaded South Africans. But in the second round the U.S. will face Japan and perhaps the most talented ballplayer you've never heard of. Matsunaka, a left-handed-hitting DH-first baseman, won Japan's Pacific League Triple Crown two seasons ago (.358-44-120) and followed that up with a .315-46-121 line last year. Chances are good Team USA will face Japan in each team's opening game of the second round, meaning a matchup with Roger Clemens -- who might be held out of what could become a meaningless first-round finale against South Africa -- is quite possible. (Though we'd love to see Matsunaka's face after getting his first up-close look at Dontrelle Willis.)

4. Johan Santana vs. Yuliesky Gourriel
The San Juan second-round bracket is expected to be the highlight of the tournament -- a rollicking free-for-all among Caribbean powerhouses Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba -- with 25,000 flag-waving fans packing Hiram Bithorn Stadium. The best individual matchup could be Venezuela's Santana, perhaps the American League's nastiest pitcher, against Gourriel, a third baseman who's generating a lot of buzz among scouts drooling at the possibility of an open Cuba. We never got to see Omar Linares, a surefire major-league star and the pride of Fidel Castro's 1990s teams, play against the best competition; now Gourriel gets his chance.

5. Javier Vazquez vs. the Dominican Republic
If Puerto Rico is going to get past the second round, it will probably have to knock off the Dominicans -- and figuring out how to save ace Vazquez for the Dominicans' buzz-saw lineup could become paramount. Vazquez's excellent control presents a hidden edge: He's efficient enough that the WBC's 80-pitch limit could get Puerto Rico through six strong innings. If the Dominican hitters aren't patient -- and not many of them are -- they could find themselves playing catchup in a crucial game.

6. Japanese pitchers vs. Team USA
The WBC is facing more criticism than it deserves, but here's a legitimate travesty: Rather than have each round-two winner play the other pool's runner-up in the semifinals, creating new opponent pairs, the Pool 1 winner plays the Pool 1 runner-up, and the two Pool 2 advancers play each other, too. (This was obviously done to keep the ratings-raising United States team alive as long as possible.) That leaves the United States playing Japan in this semifinal, which is no gimme game for the Americans. A few days after playing Team USA in the second round, Japan will surely use several new pitchers to give the U.S. different looks. It could be right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has a bunch of international experience, or star left-hander Toshiya Sugiuchi. Japanese relief is strong, as well, and if some new, funky deliveries catch Team USA off guard, the WBC's grand plan of a USA-Latin nation final could be out the window.

7. Dominican Republic vs. Venezuela -- yet again
The flip side of Team USA's easy street is how the Dominicans and Venezuelans -- possibly the field's best two teams -- could face each other three times before even reaching the final. (Heaven forbid they play, and even knock off, the U.S. and/or Japan one round early.) It's hard to know how the pitchers' rest rules will dictate the Venezuelan starter, but you can bet manager Luis Sojo will line up either Santana or Carlos Zambrano for this do-or-die semifinal. Then, do they use Freddy Garcia in relief or save him for a final two days later? This is where things get really interesting.

8. Roger Clemens vs. Bartolo Colon
Brad Lidge vs. Albert Pujols
Not Billy Wagner vs. David Ortiz
It's a darn shame we can't get a Rocket-Pedro final -- Don Zimmer could throw out the first pitch! -- but the U.S. and Dominican showdown will have to do. After flip-flopping on the Dominican, Alex Rodriguez can get flip-flopped by a Colon heater. Brad Lidge can enjoy a second chance against Albert Pujols. In a one-run game going down to the last of the ninth, U.S. manager Buck Martinez can curse how Billy Wagner isn't available to face David Ortiz. I don't know how it will play out, but I'm confident of one thing: It'll be a heck of a lot more fun than that night's Padres-Rockies tilt in Tucson.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.