There are 16 teams vying for the four spots that remain open in next year's competition proper. The four sides which had the worst results last time the event took place in 2013 (Australia, Mexico, Spain and Brazil) are each placed in a group with three other hopefuls, who then face off in a modified double-elimination playoff. The last team standing makes it through to the finals. One qualifying group takes place this month, there are two in March, but the last doesn't take place until September - that one, in Brooklyn, is one I'm particularly keen to see, as it includes Great Britain, who will be facing Brazil (sorry, Muu!), Israel and Pakistan.
This round is not without interest either, as it pits the two Antipodean nations, Australia and New Zealand, against each other, along with South Africa and the Philippines. Games are being played not far outside Sydney, at Blacktown International Sportspark, and the home team are heavily favored. Almost all their roster have at least minor-league experience, and they have more affiliated players than the other three put together. They have several names you'll probably recognize, who have played with MLB, including a pair of former Diamondbacks, in Ryan Rowland-Smith, part of our roster when we went down under in 2014, and - hello, SnakePit laideez! - Trent Oeltjen.
New Zealand and Australia have a passionate sporting rivalry, perhaps most intensely seen in the game of rugby union where the much smaller nation of New Zealand is currently the best in the world. Last November, they won the rugby World Cup in England, thumping Australia 34-17 in the final. Another reason to cheer for them is the baseball team's nickname: as the national rugby team are called the All Black, the baseball outfit are called the Diamondblacks! And one of their two current minor-league players is in the Diamondbacks' farm system too: Max Brown, our 37th-round pick, was born in North Bend, WA, but qualifies due to a New Zealand father.
It would be a major shock if the Diamondblacks were to defeat the Southern Thunder, and the same goes for the two remaining teams. South Africa actually has a pair of WBC appearance under their belts, although they are 0-5 overall. We were in attendance at Scottsdale Stadium back in 2006 for their greatest moment - taking an 8-7 lead into the ninth against Canada. The Philippines squad has three players with major-league experience too, most notably Clay Rapada, for whom this tournament will be his swansong: he made 152 relief appearances in the majors from 2007-13.
A lot of the games will be shown on the MLB Network, and they will all be available for streaming online, on MLB.com, WorldBaseballClassic.com and ESPN Pac-Rim. Here's the schedule of games - obviously, with a double-elimination format, the specific participants for the later games are to be decided. All times are Arizona, and games that will be on the MLB Network are marked (MLBN). THURSDAY
- South Africa vs. New Zealand:
7 p.m Wednesday
- Philippines vs. Australia:
1:30 a.m Thursday (MLBN)
- Philippines vs. TBD:
7 p.m. Thursday
- Australia vs. TBD:
1:30 a.m Friday (MLBN)
- TBD vs. TBD
12:30 a.m. Saturday (MLBN)
- Finalist 2 vs. Finalist 1
8pm Saturday (MLBN)