With the United States ousted from the World Baseball Classic field Friday night, local fans might be looking for somebody else to cheer for when the championship round arrives at AT&T Park this weekend.
A rising star? A familiar face?
Hensley Meulens is both. The Giants batting coach is the manager of Team Netherlands, one of four national teams to advance to the semifinal round in San Francisco, and he's established himself as a candidate for a major league promotion.
"What he's done is definitely going to get some attention," Tony La Russa, a four-time manager of the year, said Friday. "His guys are playing hard. They're executing. And he already had a strong line on his resume by working for Bruce Bochy."
La Russa spoke by phone from Miami just hours before Puerto Rico knocked out Team USA with a 4-3 victory.
And though La Russa concedes he was once a WBC skeptic, he said he's come around on the idea of what globalization can do for the overall health of the sport. He encouraged fans to check out the action at AT&T Park -- even without the chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" -- because of how seriously the players take the tournament.
With the field of 16 qualifying teams whittled to the final four -- Puerto Rico, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic and Japan -- AT&T Park will play host to semifinal games at 6 p.m. on Sunday and Monday as well as Tuesday's title game at 5 p.m.
Puerto Rico will play the Dominican Republic on Saturday at Marlins Park to determine matchups for the semifinals at AT&T Park. The winner will play the Netherlands on Monday, and the loser faces Japan on Sunday.
"I can see how this tournament is catching hold," La Russa said. "You see the excitement level of every country. Those celebrations you've seen in some of the early round games, those are for real."
Though WBC fever might be tough to find in the U.S., the tournament is a big hit elsewhere. The March 8 game between Japan and Chinese Taipei registered a 15.5 television rating in Taiwan, making it the highest rated cable program in the country's history. When Japan defeated the Netherlands two days later, the 22.1 rating made it the most-viewed sporting event in Japan over the past 12 months (topping Olympics coverage, for example).
With help from La Russa and others, here's what you need to know:
What is the WBC?
The tournament began in 2006, in part as a response to baseball being dropped as an Olympic sport. The goal was a World Cup-type tournament, complete with a flag-waving atmosphere, that could make use of professional players (unlike the Summer Olympics, which conflicted with the MLB schedule). Japan has won both of the previous tournaments, in 2006 and 2009, with pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka winning the MVP award each time.
After this year, the WBC will return in 2017.
How did teams get here?
Previous WBC tournaments had a preselected field of 16 teams. This time, only the 12 teams that had won at least one game in 2009 got automatic berths. The other four teams in this year's field -- Spain, Canada, Brazil and Chinese Taipei -- made it via qualifying tournaments played September through November.
How are players chosen?
Rosters are assembled at the discretion of each nation's governing baseball federation. (In Italy, for example, it's the Federezione Italiana Baseball Softball.) At invitation time, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) works in cooperation with the MLB office to gauge interest and availability.
Do you have to be a native to play for a country?
No. Former A's outfielder Chris Denorfia, who played for Team Italy, for example, was born in Bristol, Conn. Giants reliever Sergio Romo, the closer for Team Mexico, is from Brawley. The simplest way for a non-native or noncitizens to be eligible for a particular country is by parental birthright.
Are there any unusual rules?
Confusion over the tiebreaking system prompted a full-scale brawl in an early round game when Canada's Rene Tosoni was hit in the back by a pitch from Mexico's Arnold Leon (an A's farmhand). Team Mexico was upset that Canada seemed intent on running up the score, apparently unaware that run differential was a factor in determining which team moved to the next round.
A full list of playing rules is available at worldbaseballclassic.com.
Are there pitch restrictions?
For the championship-round games at AT&T Park, pitchers are allowed 95 pitchers per game. In the first round, it was 65 pitches and in the second round it was 80.
With an eye toward protecting relievers, pitchers who throw 30 pitches in a game must take the following day off. Relievers cannot pitch three days in a row under any circumstance.
How come not all the big names are here?
Some players decline invitations because of injuries, workload concerns or simply different priorities. Angels outfielder/supernova Mike Trout, for example, would have been a huge coup for Team USA, but the 21-year-old wanted to focus on his regular spring-training preparation.
Giants catcher Buster Posey also chose to skip the WBC. After working behind the plate into November as part of the World Series run, the National League MVP was in no rush to crank things up in early March.
Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at twitter.com/mercbrownie.
Semifinals and final at AT&T Park
Sunday: Semifinal I: Japan vs. TBA, 6 p.m.
Monday: Semifinal II: Netherlands vs. TBA, 6 p.m.
Tuesday: Final, 5 p.m.