Most American baseball fans are more interested in major league spring training than they are in the World Baseball Classic.
Mainers who follow the University of Maine and the Senior League World Series have a little extra motivation for following the international tournament in Phoenix, Ariz.
Former University of Maine standouts Curt Smith and Jon Balentina, along with fellow Curacao natives Xander Bogaerts, Jonathan Schoop, Hainley Statia and Shairon Martis are among the players who have led the Kingdom of the Netherlands into the WBC semifinals.
Smith, along with minor leaguers Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox, Schoop [Baltimore], Statia [Milwaukee] and Martis [Minnesota] played in the Senior League World Series at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor.
“It is quite a connection and it shows the level of talent we get here for the Senior League World Series,” said tourney director Mike Brooker. “There are 56 kids that played here who have signed pro contracts.”
The Netherlands team arrived Tuesday in Phoenix, where it will face the Pool 2 winner in a March 18 semifinal at AT&T Park.
“We knew we have a great team and that was our goal, to make it to San Francisco,” Smith said via Facebook.
“I think the key is our chemistry on the team,” he added. “We all knew each other, played with each other for years. I think we have a great chance.”
Smith, a first baseman who played last season for the Class AA Jacksonville Suns in the Miami Marlins organization, has been a catalyst for the Netherlands. He is batting .375 with a home run and four RBIs and a team-best .467 on-base percentage.
The squad also includes All-Star outfielder Andruw Jones.
The 26-year-old Smith went 3-for-5 with an RBI single in Monday night’s dramatic 7-6 win over No. 1-ranked Cuba in Tokyo.
“I’m playing well but I’m not trying to do too much,” Smith said of his approach. “I’m trying to keep everything simple by staying calm and focused on the field.”
Balentina, who is working on a master’s degree in structural engineering at UMaine, has appeared in three WBC games and has not allowed a hit or a run in limited action.
UMaine head baseball coach Steve Trimper is pleased the two former players have the opportunity to compete in the tournament.
“Talk about two hardworking guys,” Trimper said. “People have got to understand that these guys made a huge commitment coming to the U.S. to play baseball and get their degree. They thrived in the environment at UMaine.”
Smith was named the 2008 America East Player of the Year as a senior and finished with a .370 career batting average, 27 homers and 178 RBIs.
He has spent four of the last five seasons in the minors, compiling a .293 average with 38 homers and 218 RBIs. He also played one year of independent ball.
The World Baseball Classic may be just what he needs to help him get another shot at a major league ballclub.
“I hope he can showcase himself on that international stage,” Trimper said.
Smith said it already has been beneficial to his prospects.
“This tournament has helped a lot,” he said. “I have some teams talking to me already and [they] want to give me a chance.”
Balentina was an outstanding student at UMaine, where his baseball career was marred by injuries. The lefthander’s best season came in 2008-09 when he went 3-0 with a save and a 3.88 earned run average in 48⅔ innings.
“Jonathan was the student of the year in the college of engineering,” said Trimper, who pointed out Balentina is pitching with a sidearm/submarine delivery because of an injury.
“He doesn’t have a UCL [ulnar collateral ligament]. He chose not to get surgery,” Trimper explained. “Talk about dealing with adversity. He’s another tough kid.”
Bogaerts is batting .263 with an RBI and Schoop is hitting .250 with two homers and six RBIs.