After a six-year wait, the World Baseball Classic roared to life again this week, with group play starting in Japan and Taiwan. Some of the tournament’s favorites, like the United States, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, do not begin play until Saturday — their games are in Arizona and Florida — but the action in Asia has been everything the baseball world could hope for. Japan looks like a juggernaut, the Netherlands is off to a fast start and plenty of other teams are making a strong impression.
Here is what we have learned so far.
Japan’s pitching is deep. So is its lineup. Playing at home in Tokyo, Japan rolled out the two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani as the team’s starting pitcher in an 8-1 win over China, then had Yu Darvish, a five-time M.L.B. All-Star, start a 13-4 win over Korea. The team is 2-0 and has outscored its opponents by 21-5, despite the phenom Roki Sasaki — perhaps the player American viewers are most eager to see in this tournament — not having touched the ball. Sasaki may start for Japan against the scrappy Czech Republic squad on Saturday and would likely get plenty of run support from a loaded lineup that includes Ohtani (4 for 7 with three R.B.I.), Masataka Yoshida (3 for 6 with five R.B.I.) and Lars Nootbaar (4 for 8 with four runs scored).
Home-field advantage makes a difference. When China played the Czech Republic in Tokyo — an exciting game that the Czechs came from behind to win via Martin Muzik’s three-run homer in the ninth — you would have thought you were watching a game with extreme pandemic restrictions, as the small and sleepy crowd was gathered behind home plate, and the stands that were visible during game action were largely empty. It could not have been more different when Chinese-Taipei hosted Italy in Taiwan, with a boisterous home crowd helping to fuel a come-from-behind 11-7 win that had the distinct feel of a playoff game.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands — emphasis on Kingdom — is thriving. Xander Bogaerts is from Aruba, Jurickson Profar is from Curaçao and Josh Palacios is from the United States, but they all qualified to play internationally for the Netherlands, and the team looked extremely stout in building a 2-0 record in group play over the first two days of the tournament. Ranked No. 7 in the world, the Netherlands also has plenty of players born in the country, including Didi Gregorius, the former Yankees shortstop, who was born in Amsterdam.
After the Netherlands, Group A is chaos. Italy, ranked No. 16 in the world and managed by the Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, pulled off an upset of No. 8-ranked Cuba in its first game, then took an early lead over No. 2-ranked Chinese-Taipei in its second game, but ultimately lost. As a result, the Netherlands leads Group A with a 2-0 record, while the other four teams each have exactly one win before the Panama-Italy game, which is scheduled to start at 11 p.m. Eastern on Friday (Saturday at noon in Taipei). Amusingly enough, the Netherlands, with seven runs over two games, is by far the lowest scoring team in its group.
The W.B.C. is a great place to see guys you forgot about. Matt Harvey, who did not appear in the majors in 2022 because of a combination of a drug-related suspension and not being very good at baseball anymore, started Italy’s win in the team’s opener and threw three scoreless innings. Among the batters he retired? The former Mets star Yoenis Céspedes, who has not appeared in the majors since 2020 but is among the major leaguers, past and present, who have been allowed to suit up for Cuba under the team’s evolving policies, which still exclude a majority of the country’s most prominent stars.
Tubi exists. And seems … fine? Fans who have grown accustomed to M.L.B.’s robust At Bat streaming service may have been alarmed when they saw that W.B.C. games would be streamed on Tubi, a service not exactly known for live sports (and not known at all by plenty of people). Thus far, any fears have proved unwarranted. Sign-ups are simple and free, the games are easy enough to find and the quality of the broadcasts has been superb. Most of the games are on old-fashioned television — Fox, FS1 and FS2 — as well.
Time zones are making things weird. For viewers in the United States, the schedule of games in Asia has created some busy days. On Tuesday morning, American viewers saw Panama beat Chinese-Taipei, and then on Tuesday night, they saw the same Panama squad lose to the Netherlands. The next day, Cuba lost to Italy in the U.S. morning and then beat Panama with a game broadcast that evening. But at least those teams split their games: Thanks to Muzik’s clutch home run for the Czech Republic, China went 0-2 and was outscored 16-6 during two games that were both broadcast live in the U.S. on Thursday.
Things are just getting started. Four exciting days of top-notch baseball were great, yet many of the top teams have yet to even take the field. Things should pick up even further on Saturday, when Puerto Rico and the United States are both playing games they are expected to win fairly easily. A far more competitive matchup? The Nelson Cruz-built Dream Team from the Dominican Republic facing a loaded squad from Venezuela in Miami.