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How Team USA can march through to the WBC finals

Alex Trautwig/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The way this World Baseball Classic has played out, I half expect to see the tournament end with a 17-inning game, with Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens coming out of retirement to pitch for their countries. Until then, you’ll have to settle for a United States-Venezuela matchup to start the second round for the U.S., with the two rosters featuring 27 former All-Stars.

The U.S. faces a much tougher assignment in order to advance to the semifinals than it did in Round 1, when it beat a Colombia team that started Jose Quintana but didn’t have any legitimate major league bats in the lineup and a Canada squad that had Freddie Freeman and not much else. There’s a rematch against the Dominican Republic looming on Saturday, with games against Venezuela on Wednesday and Puerto Rico on Friday before then. The top two teams from the group will move on to the semifinals.

The Venezuela lineup features Miguel Cabrera, Jose Altuve, Carlos Gonzalez, Martin Prado, Victor Martinez, Odubel Herrera and Ender Inciarte, although Salvador Perez is out of the tournament after injuring his knee in a home plate collision. That means U.S. starter Drew Smyly has his work cut out for him. He replaces Chris Archer in the rotation, as Archer has temporarily headed back to Rays camp (he tweeted that he would rejoin the team if it advances).

The Mariners acquired Smyly from the Rays, where he went 7-12 with a 4.88 ERA in 30 starts in 2016. Tampa Bay had acquired him as part of the David Price trade, in part because the Rays have a fetish for pitchers who throw fastballs up in the strike zone. That approach leads to Smyly being one of the most extreme fly ball pitchers in the majors, and with them jumping out of the park in 2016, maybe it wasn’t a surprise that Smyly served up 32 home runs.

Buried in his season, however, was one terrible rough patch of nine starts from late May through mid-July, when he posted an 8.03 ERA and allowed 70 hits over 49⅓ innings. He pitched better after that, perhaps helped by a small move on the pitching rubber, but also maybe because he ditched his changeup. Check his pitch breakdown through July 18 and after July 18:

What’s weird is his curveball suddenly started getting classified as something else in our system. Anyway, he did apparently stop throwing his changeup, which batters hit .333/.364/.667 against. Over his final 12 starts, he had a 3.73 ERA and allowed a .230 average. The Mariners -- and Team USA -- are hoping that’s the Smyly who turns up Wednesday in San Diego.

His opponent will be Mariners teammate Felix Hernandez, who struggled with command in his first WBC start, getting knocked out in the third inning after throwing 33 pitches in the inning. Venezuela was three outs from being eliminated in Monday’s tiebreaker game against Italy, before Cabrera tied the game with a home run and Rougned Odor tacked on a go-ahead hit. Venezuela doesn’t have the pitching depth in the bullpen of the U.S. or Dominican Republic, so they need Hernandez and Martin Perez to pitch deeper into these games. Maximum pitch counts for this round are extended from 65 to 80.

The winner of this game is in great position, especially after Puerto Rico’s 3-1 win over the Dominican Republic on Tuesday. Marcus Stroman, fresh off a terrific outing against the Dominican Republic in the first round, draws the assignment against Puerto Rico, while Danny Duffy is slated to face the D.R. -- a big challenge for Duffy, given the all the right-handed bats in the opposing lineup and his sizable platoon splits from 2016 (.760 OPS versus righties, .449 versus lefties). The Dominicans, meanwhile, are not only in an 0-1 hole, but they have burned their best starter in Carlos Martinez. Ervin Santana will start against the U.S.

All this points to Smyly’s outing as a huge key for the U.S., although with a day off Thursday, manager Jim Leyland shouldn’t hesitate to go to his bullpen early and often, especially to get key righty-on-righty matchups against the top of the Venezuela lineup (Altuve, Prado, Cabrera) or using Andrew Miller to face the middle of the lineup featuring switch-hitting Martinez and lefty-swinging Gonzalez.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico continues to surprise -- much as it did in 2013, when it finished second to the Dominican Republic. With most of the team donning blonde hair, there’s no denying their team unity. There’s also the spectacular defense we’ve seen from Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez in the infield and Yadier Molina behind the plate, plus Eddie Rosario, who launched a laser beam from right field to throw out the speedy Jean Segura at home plate on Tuesday. They also have a couple of big arms in the bullpen in Tigers prospect Joe Jimenez and Mariners closer Edwin Diaz. Mets right-hander Seth Lugo is slated to start against the U.S.

Let's put it this way: As I stare out my window at 20 inches of snow on the ground, I wouldn't mind catching a flight to San Diego to see what happens over the next few days.