- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2006

If baseball’s central casting scripted the World Baseball Classic, the March 20 championship in prime time in San Diego would feature the United States against the Dominican Republic.

Roger Clemens vs. Albert Pujols. Derek Jeter vs. Bartolo Colon.

Only don’t expect Venezuela to cooperate.

It’s tough not to tab Venezuela as the favorite to win the inaugural WBC, considering this still is spring training and pitchers are generally ahead of hitters in preparing for the season.

The Venezuelan staff is led by the American League’s best pitcher — Cy Young Award or not — in the Minnesota Twins’ Johan Santana. He is followed in the rotation by Carlos Zambrano and Freddy Garcia, a trio that combined for a major league record of 44-21 last year. The offense is led by Miguel Cabrera, Bobby Abreu and Carlos Guillen.

The United States also ranks among the favorites with two of the best pitchers in the tournament: 43-year-old Clemens and 24-year-old Dontrelle Willis. Their lineup is led by Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.

Then there is the All-Star Dominican squad with an infield of Albert Pujois at first, Alfonso Soriano at second, Miguel Tejada at shortstop and Adrian Beltre at third.

There also is the mystery of the Cuban team. They have dominated international play — but not against major league players. Some say many of their young, talented players are not on the roster for fear they would defect.

And there always has been speculation that the Japanese players have nearly reached the level of major league players in their country.

So here is how the WBC could unfold: Japan and the United States emerge from the second round to the semifinals in San Diego on March 18, with Venezuela and the Dominican Republic meeting in the other semifinal.

The championship game will be close to central casting: The United States will do its part, but Venezuela will go against script and win the first World Baseball Classic.

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