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Netherlands’ success no overnight phenomenon

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The calls began coming in August, and they didn’t stop. Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens had a player who was excited about the upcoming World Baseball Classic, then still seven months away, and he wanted the manager to hear all about it.

That player was Andruw Jones, a former five-time All-Star during his time in the majors with the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees. Jones, now with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, was already a highly accomplished player, but his passion for the WBC had been ignited.

“Andruw has been talking to me since August of last year about this tournament,” Meulens said. “Because that’s how deep into it he wanted to get. Compared to the first time in 2006 when he played, he wasn’t really into it. Now, he’s poured all his heart and desire into this and he’s pulling guys with him.”

It’s that type of desire that has led the Dutch evolution from Cinderella story in the 2009 WBC, into a team that’s one win away from the final round in 2013 and looking very much like a force to be reckoned with.

The Netherlands have knocked off baseball powers Korea and Cuba along the way, and with a win on Sunday will be one of the four teams competing for the WBC title in San Francisco.

“It was not a fluke what we did in 2009,” Meulens said. “Our country is getting better players that are ascending to the major leagues. They’re proving in the tournament that we’re here to stay.”

The ‘Oranje’ (Orange) went 1-2 in the 2006 WBC, but upset a powerful Dominican Republic team, laden with MLB talent, twice to make a surprise appearance in the second round in 2009.

This time it’s the Dutch who are carrying a bit of major league talent. Jones played in the majors for 17 years, and he’s joined by current major leaguers such as Andrelton Simmons (Atlanta Braves), and Roger Bernadina (Washington Nationals), as well as prospects like Jonathan Schoop, who is in the Baltimore Orioles’ organization.

Schoop was the star in the Netherlands’ opening game of the second round, driving in four runs with a three-run homer and RBI double and finishing a single shy of hitting for the cycle in a 6-2 win over Cuba on Friday.

“Maybe I just see the ball well, and try to put the ball in play” Schoop said. “I feel comfortable everyday.”

Schoop has two home runs, a double, and six RBIs in four games of the WBC. Jones leads the team with a .455 average, and Simmons has five hits — three doubles — and two RBIs. Curt Smith also has a home run and NPB All-Star Wladimir Balentien, of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, has four hits and an RBI.

“You can see the talent on the field,” Meulens said. “We’ve got guys who are playing in the big leagues, we’ve got guys who are top prospects in their organizations on their way to the big leagues and we have veteran players who have had a lot of success in international tournaments.”

The Dutch have made their run this season without a few of their top players, such as Jurickson Profar, one of the top-rated prospects in the Texas Rangers’ system.

“What we have is still good enough,” Meulens said. “We have a great team. Imagine if we had those guys. It would’ve been a problem of who to play for me. Our training has been (going on) for a long time, and guys are serious and it’s paying off with the way they’ve played.”

Jones has taken on a leadership role with the team. He took his teammates out to dinner, picking up the tab, earlier in the tournament and has set a good example for his younger teammates to follow.

“Showing the true star that he is,” Meulens said. “It’s not about all talk, it’s showing the way. He’s taken it upon himself. Robbie Cordemans is the oldest guy on the team, he’s the leader of the pitchers. He’s pulling everybody the same way. We rely on those two guys, who are the oldest guys on the team, and also the stars on the team, to get everybody on board.”

Playing in Japan is something of a homecoming for Meulens, who made his NPB debut with the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1994 and spent the next two seasons with the Swallows, helping the team win the 1995 Japan Series. Meulens homered in Game 3 of that series. The former New York Yankee hit 77 home runs and drove in 216 runs during his time in Japan.

“I had a great time in Japan,” Meulens said. “Japan was probably the three best years of my career as a player. I got to win a championship here in a very tough environment. I learned a lot. I learned how to play small ball. I learned how to hit the pitch inside. I didn’t like the pitch inside, the shuuto, but I learned how to hit it over here. It did a lot of good things for me and for my family.”

Meulens has the Netherlands pointed in the right direction, but understands there’s one more win to get before they advance to the semifinals.

“Our plan was to get to the finals and win it,” Meulens said. “After the game today, all I said is ‘Hey, we’re one step closer. Let’s maintain our focus.’ “