The 2023 World Baseball Classic is underway across the globe as the game's best players hit the field for their respective countries.
After Team USA won the 2017 WBC, Major League Baseball canceled the 2021 edition due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, the WBC returns with national teams hailing from five continents. Chase Field in Phoenix was chosen to host Pool C games between the United States, Canada, Colombia, Great Britain and Mexico.
With 20 nations competing in this years contest, countries like Israel, which only has one Israeli player, are relying on foreign-born players to fill roster spots. Under WBC rules, there are several ways a player can join a national team, including if they are a citizen of the country or if one of their parents was born there.
As the 2023 WBC kicks into full gear, five former ASU players and three national letters of intent signees are battling for national glory and a global crown.
Before his breakout season at the University of Missouri, Ian Kinsler was a Sun Devil for one season and played alongside Dustin Pedroia and Andre Ethier. In the majors, Kinsler played 14 seasons while being named an All-Star four times and a Gold Glove winner twice.
On the international stage, Kinsler played for Team USA in the 2017 WBC before representing Israel at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Born to a Jewish father, Kinsler changed teams after receiving his Israeli citizenship in 2020, according to Sports Illustrated. Now, Kinsler is managing Team Israel after the national team placed sixth at the 2017 WBC.
"I have a pretty easy message for the players," Kinsler told Jewish News Syndicate. "We are showing up to win, not just to participate."
Merrill Kelly had a short but memorable career as a Sun Devil after playing two seasons at Yavapai College. In one season at ASU, Kelly posted a 10-3 record while being named an Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 player. He was then drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2010 MLB draft, played four seasons for the SK Wyverns in South Korea, and has pitched for the Arizona Diamondbacks since the 2019 season.
Kelly rounds out Team USA's starting rotation alongside a group of veteran pitchers including St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright. Kelly said he is thrilled to play for Team USA after his long road to the majors.
"If you would have asked me in 2015, 2016 or even possibly 2017, if I thought I was going to be playing for Team USA in the WBC, I would have told you that you were insane," Kelly told MLB.com. "It's been a ride, for sure. The fact that I'm 34 now, in my fifth year in the big leagues, playing for Team USA is — I know we say the word special all the time — but it really is special."
Despite being born in Phoenix, Eric Sogard holds Czech Republic citizenship and is one of four American-born players on the Czech national team. Sogard brings experience to his national team as an 11-year MLB veteran, making him the only player on the Czech team that has appeared in the MLB.
While he hasn't played in the MLB since the 2021 season, Sogard has excelled so far in the WBC and recorded seven hits on 16 trips to the plate. He leads the Czech national team with a .438 batting average and one stolen base.
Donning the nickname "Nerd Power," Sogard is known for the tall socks and boxy glasses he's worn since playing for the Oakland Athletics. Before the 2023 WBC, Sogard said he gifted the Czech team striped socks to introduce a part of his game to the clubhouse.
"I know there's quite a few guys who wear their pants up as well, so I figured hey, let's bring socks for everybody," Sogard told MLB.com. "If they want to wear them, they can wear them and we can look good together."
A standout collegiate catcher, Austin Barnes was part of the ASU team that won the Pac-10 regular season title and advanced to the 2010 College World Series. As a Sun Devil, Barnes started 84 games behind the plate. After being drafted by the Miami Marlins in the 2011 MLB draft, Barnes was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers and became a World Series champion in 2020.
Just like Sogard, Barnes was born in the U.S. but chose to represent Mexico due to family lineage. Barnes said he's always wanted to participate in the WBC and that he’s honored to play for Team Mexico, according to the Los Angeles Times.
National Letter of Intent Signees
While they were drafted before playing collegiate baseball, ASU NLI signees Nolan Arenado, Alex Verdugo and Adam Loewen are competing for Team USA, Mexico and Canada respectively. Arenado led Team USA to a 6-2 victory over Great Britain with a pair of doubles and two RBIs on March 11.
With group play well underway, Pool A games wrapped up in Taichung, Taiwan with a five-way tie after all five teams posted a 2-2 record. Despite the tie, Italy and Cuba advanced due to the WBC's tiebreaker rule in which the two teams with the fewest runs allowed per defensive out recorded would advance.
While Pool A was tightly contested, Pool B saw less competition as Japan and Australia steamrolled past opponents. Led by dual-threat Shohei Ohtani, Team Japan capitalized on its home-field advantage at the Tokyo Dome to outscore opponents 38-8. Trailing just behind Japan, Team Australia finished 3-1 in group play to advance to its first WBC quarterfinal appearance.
Meanwhile, four more teams will advance out of group play as Pool C and D games conclude this week. Currently, Team USA and Canada are both 2-1 in group play and sit atop Pool C while Venezuela leads Pool D with a 3-0 record.
After group play, pool winners and runner-ups will face off in quarterfinal matchups in Tokyo and Miami. In Tokyo, Australia is set to play Cuba on March 15 while Italy and Japan will face off on March 16. The final four pool games on March 15 will determine which teams will compete in the quarterfinals in Miami on March 17 and 18.
Edited by Kathryn Field, Reagan Priest and Grace Copperthite.