Benji Gil: Don’t Underestimate Mexico in World Baseball Classic Semifinal vs. Japan

Manager Benji Gil of Team Mexico looks on during the playing of the national anthems prior to Game 1 of Pool C between Team Colombia and Team Mexico at Chase Field on Saturday, March 11, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Classic

MIAMI- Don’t underestimate Mexico, the winner of Pool C at the World Baseball Classic, who vanquished Puerto Rico 5-4 on Friday to reach Monday night’s semifinals.

Sure, they’re up against Japan, the odds-on favorite to win the World Baseball Classic, and phenom pitcher Roki Sasaki, but give Mexico a little credit. They got here, after all, and defeated Team USA in pool play and Puerto Rico in the quarterfinal.

If anyone is underestimating Mexico, Benji Gil, the skipper, says, “They are wrong, because in this tournament, we have seen that teams that were not among the favorites could reach further. We have seen [that with the Netherlands], Italy, Israel.”

Had this tournament been played in 2021, when it was originally scheduled, manager Benji Gil’s team would have been a lot different.

“Most of the players that we have today were not in the majors or they were too young to participate in this tournament,” Gil said of his roster. “Three or four years ago, the same roster we have today, most of the players were unknown.”

It’s a good problem to have, and one that boosts the country’s outlook at the 2026 World Baseball Classic.

“This team is a very good team with young players, not in terms of age,” Gil said. “Joey Meneses, he’s a very young player in terms of playing in the Majors, but in a very short time, he’s considered a solid player in the Majors. …This team, this very team in the Classic in 2026, people will say this team is full of superstars or very solid players in the Majors.”

The biggest star for Mexico in this WBC has been Cuban-born Randy Arozarena, who openly rooted for Cuba to beat the United States so he could be the one to beat Cuba, a country from which he defected in 2015, leaving on a small boat and playing in Mexico’s Liga Mexicana de Beisbol before signing with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017.

He made a game-saving catch in the eighth inning of the quarterfinal, snagging Emmanuel Rivera’s fly ball against the left field wall to prevent the tying run from scoring, and has batted .471/.625/.941 in the WBC with a homer, nine RBI and five walks.

“I mean, he’s the biggest star, baseball star, right now in Mexico, and I think it’s wonderful,” Gil said. “I think people in Japan have become fans, right, because he’s a great character. He’s doing stuff with his base running, his defense, obviously great hitting. And his personality, I mean, he’s infectious, he has great energy. It’s just fun to watch somebody that looks like he just loves to play baseball.” 

Gil will put Patrick Sandoval of the Los Angeles Angels on the mound against Japan and Roki Sasaki. For Sandoval, it’s a chance to go up against his Angels teammate Shohei Ohtani, who will likely be Japan’s designated hitter. 

“I saw him a little bit today in the outfield, just said, ‘What’s up?’ and caught up a little bit,” Sandoval said of facing Ohtani. “But I haven’t really talked much about the game. It’s going to be fun to face him. I’m looking forward to it.”

Japan won Pool B and then defeated Pool A runner-up Italy 9-3 on March 16 behind a 4.2 inning performance by Ohtani where he surrendered just four hits and two runs.

Tonight, Mexico will face Sasaki and a lineup they don’t know a whole lot about, but that doesn’t worry Gil too much.

“We have many videos, we have a lot of information, we’re very well prepared,” Gil said. “There are great stars on the team. Unfortunately, we don’t know them as… stars playing in the MLB, and that’s why I love this kind of event, because we have the opportunity that stars in their regions or in their countries become global stars.”

The first pitch of the second World Baseball Classic semifinal between Japan and Mexico is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET. The game will be televised on Fox Sports 1.

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