Three of the four World Baseball Classic semifinalists this year are among the most decorated baseball powers in the world.
In Sunday night's first semifinal, the U.S., the defending champion, defeated Cuba, which finished third in the inaugural event. Japan, the tournament favorite which has won two titles and never missed the championship round, will play in Monday night's semifinal.
The fourth team? It's Mexico, after a surprise upset in the quarterfinals of two-time runner-up Puerto Rico.
Though baseball has long been popular -- often, second only to soccer -- in the country, Mexico had never made it past the second round of the WBC, which it reached in 2006 and 2009. Until now. And with one of the best rosters the country has ever put up in the WBC, featuring stars such as Julio Urías, Rowdy Tellez and Randy Arozarena, Team Mexico believes you shouldn't bet against it.
"The expectation is to get to the final -- and win it," Mexico general manager Rodrigo López said in an interview with ESPN before the tournament began. "I answer that all the time, but I truly believe it. In elimination games, anything can happen."
Following a rough start to Pool C play with an extra-innings loss to Colombia, Mexico has won four in a row, including an 11-5 rout of the United States in pool play and a come-from-behind victory over Puerto Rico (who went up 4-0 in the first inning) on Friday. It's a stark contrast from the past incarnations of Mexican teams, which have underwhelmed and sometimes ended their tournament appearances marred by controversy. In 2013, a massive brawl ensued in their loss to Canada. Four years later, a misinterpretation of tiebreak criteria resulted in Mexico's elimination despite a formal protest.
The sudden mix of clutch hitting, stellar pitching and confident swagger from the team is no coincidence: It has been a concerted effort by Lopez and the rest of the Mexico staff.
Lopez -- who pitched for Mexico in the 2006, 2009 and 2013 WBC tournaments -- was put in charge of overseeing the construction of this year's roster, as well as diagnosing the areas in which the team's preparation for the tournament could improve. In previous editions, Lopez said Mexico's scouting department had been unable to provide information on teams it would be facing in the early rounds.
"When the tournament started, international baseball wasn't as big as it is now," Lopez said. "In 2006, for instance, we didn't have a lot of information about opponents coming over from Asia. I played against South Korea back then, and everything about them was a surprise to us."
In the months prior to the 2023 tournament, Lopez and his staff scoured all available data points for players they deemed likely to be selected to opposing rosters, hoping to build their own roster and training plans around the players they would face. When the final rosters were announced, Lopez was pleased to find that nearly everyone was accounted for.
From there, he turned to his hand-selected manager, former big league infielder Benji Gil, who won a bronze medal for Mexico in the 2007 Pan American Games. Gil has racked up four titles as a manager in the Liga Mexicana del Pacífico, Mexico's winter league. Gil and Lopez worked together to dissect each team's strengths and weaknesses and discussed at length with the coaching staff to prepare.
In a tournament of this caliber, knowing your opponent can be crucial -- as outfielder Chris Roberson, who played for Mexico in the 2017 tournament, knows well.
"If you want to win the tournament or at least get deep in the tournament, everybody has to come in full on ready," he said. "Because those other guys, especially Japan, they're always ready. Venezuela's always ready. The USA, they stepped it up a ton."
For Mexico, the appeal of wearing the national jersey already had been evident, but recruiting the biggest stars still could be a struggle. In 2013, several players were unable to attend, due to concerns from their clubs or the players who wanted their focus to be on the upcoming MLB season. Without stars like Joakim Soria or Andre Ethier, Mexico finished last in its pool, the final game a 10-3 blowout against Team Canada that was marred by a brawl.
"That time around, we had some guys who were nearly retired mixed in with really young players who were barely making their way through the ranks," Lopez said. "We're talking about guys even playing out of position, that's how bad it was."
Roberson, who has played in Mexico's summer and winter leagues since 2005, attributed the slow starts in earlier editions of the WBC in part to the shock of Mexican big leaguers being pulled into meaningful games so quickly after the offseason.
"We're used to playing winter ball, big games in the Caribbean Series and stuff like that," said Roberson. "So guys coming off of maybe training at home or training wherever, I don't think guys were just used to being outside yet and playing ball."
This year, Mexico has 19 big leaguers on the team, the most of any of its WBC rosters so far. Even after All-Star catcher Alejandro Kirk dropped out to stay at spring training with the Toronto Blue Jays, Mexico arrived at the WBC with a well-rounded squad.
As a former pitcher, Lopez prioritized starting pitching to counter some of the loaded lineups Mexico would be facing, convincing José Urquidy, Patrick Sandoval and Taijuan Walker to join Urías -- the 2022 National League ERA champion -- in the rotation. Urías struggled from the mound in his two starts, but others have stepped up. Walker, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies in December, was especially effective, striking out eight and allowing just one hit over four innings in Mexico's win over Great Britain.
On the offensive side, Arozarena's heroics have made headlines, while timely hitting from his Tampa teammate Isaac Paredes, as well as Tellez, Joey Meneses and Austin Barnes, have kept Mexico's hopes intact in key moments.
"They've got something to prove," Roberson said. "It feels different now, they got some thundercats in the lineup, as I like to say. And they're going to be in the mix, maybe even win the thing."
After reaching the semifinal round for the first time and defeating the likes of the United States and Puerto Rico, Team Mexico is already playing with house money. Even the country's notoriously skeptical sports media and passionate fans would likely be satisfied if it all comes to an end Monday.
But given the talent (and gumption) displayed so far, Lopez and Team Mexico continue to dream big.
"I feel fortunate and blessed because I'm living through an era of Mexican baseball where we have so many established big leaguers," he said. "Imagine winning [the WBC]. If we achieve that, it would be one of the best moments of my entire life and a source of pride for Mexico, to be able to lift the game and the country up to the heavens."