Baseball

Seasoned, confident Dutch team focused on winning

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

These Dutch are hot and dangerous right now.

The Netherlands advanced to the World Baseball Classic final round for the second straight edition, and is perhaps better this time because of experienced amassed along the way.

Slugger Wladimir Balentien, though, said he doesn’t feel a sense of relief yet.

He made those remarks after the Dutch’s 14-1 win over Cuba on Wednesday at Tokyo Dome, where the team clinched a spot in the championship round at Dodger Stadium.

“We still need two more wins,” cautioned Balentien, the team’s cleanup hitter and Tokyo Yakult Swallows star. ” It took some stress off your back, because we had to win this game to have a chance to stay in the tournament. But we cannot relax yet. We still have to go to LA and win two more games.”

In the 2009 WBC, the Netherlands edged the Dominican Republic 3-2 in the first round and it was treated as a shocker. When it reached the final-four round in 2013, it still was a little bit of a surprise.

But Balentien’s team being among the four still standing now? Not a stunning feat any more. The Dutch have put themselves on the global baseball map.

“We’ve turned the corner, in my opinion, because of all those stars on the field,” said Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens, who has been a coach for the team since the 2004 Athens Olympics and took over as the skipper for the 2013 WBC. “We have three very accomplished shortstops in the major leagues and two of them play at different positions right now. Didi (Gregorius of the New York Yankees) is DHing and Xander (Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox) is playing third. (Texas Rangers’ Jurickson) Profar is playing outfield. And then Coco’s (Balentien) been a star over the last few years (in Japan), so has Rick van den Hurk (starting pitcher for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks).

“So it’s proven major league players or guys that are playing over here in Japan and have had a lot of success. I think people know that we have arrived, they are not going to take us lightly any more.”

Balentien, who hit 60 homers for the NPB single-season record in 2013, thinks that expectations for the team have grown when it competes in global tourneys.

“Those guys did a great job against (the Dominicans in the aforementioned win). They were a young team,” said the 32-year-old, who wasn’t on the national team for the 2009 WBC. “We didn’t have a lot of major league experience. Even in the last Classic, we had a couple of major leaguers, (but) without experience, people thought we cannot do it. But this year, with all the experience and all those great hitters we have, All-Star players, stuff like that, I think people need to start noticing that Holland is getting better and better every year.”

Though its pitching staff has done a solid job so far in the WBC, its offense has carried the team, which is 4-2, as far as it has.

Its run-scoring ability has clicked as the tournament progressed. The Dutch have won their last two games — against Israel (12-1) and Cuba — via the mercy rule.

Meulens said that most of his players were prepared to play when the WBC began.

“Coco was ready, he’s been in Japan since late January, getting ready for this,” he added. “Profar has been ready… So these guys, our 3, 4, 5 hitters, have been carrying us. Our guys in the top of the lineup as well. (Yurendell) de Caster had a huge game (against Cuba). Seems like everybody in the lineup did something. (Shawn) Zarraga had two hits the other day (against Israel on Monday) with two RBIs. So everybody’s contributed a little bit. And that’s why you see our runs.”

Meulens, a hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants, said that the team’s offense could be hotter than it was when on Sunday, when it lost 8-6 to Japan in a nail-biting 11-inning contest.

Balentien agreed.

“We have had a great offense the whole tournament,” he said. “Like Bam Bam (Meulens) said (after the Netherlands-Cuba game), we could’ve been 6-0 right now. The game against Japan, one inning, two innings, maybe we had a chance to break the score, score a lot of runs. But they pitched good. There were a couple of good pitchers they had. They stopped the bleeding.

“We played a great game against them. But our offense is hot right now, and it doesn’t matter who we face. We continue to play hard, hit well and try to (go) all the way and win this thing.”

Balentien, a former Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds player, went homerless with five RBIs and a .304 batting average in the 2013 WBC, appearing in all seven games for the Dutch, who lost to the eventual champion Dominican Republic 4-1 in the semifinals in San Francisco.

But he’s turned the tables this time. The outfielder leads the WBC in home runs (three, tie) and RBIs (10) and is hitting .591. Balentien was chosen as the MVP for Pool E in the second round.

“He’s got a lot of bat speed and he’s strong,” Meulens, a former Chiba Lotte Marines and Swallows player in the mid-1990s, said of the reason why Balentien seems to be swinging his bat lightly but hitting the ball farther. “Now he’s learned how to hit, he’s learned how to become a better hitter and still learning more about hitting so he can slow things down.”

The Netherlands awaits the Pool F winner in the first day of the WBC semifinals on Monday.