It took seven years, but we finally got a matchup between the Dominican Republic and the United States of America in the World Baseball Classic. It was worth the wait. With a spot in the final round on the line, the Dominicans rallied in the top of the ninth in front of a frenzied crowd that seemed to be made up mostly of Dominican fans, celebrating every big hit like it was a walkoff home run. I'm only speaking for myself here, but it was unlike anything I've seen on a baseball field in March.
Let's just take a second to talk about the scene in Miami in the top of the ninth inning. With Nelson Cruz on third base and one out in a 1-1 game, Erick Aybar came up to the plate as a pinch-hitter to face Craig Kimbrel. With the crowd seemingly on the edge of an eruption, Aybar took a 1-1 pitch that looked like it was six inches off of the outside part of the plate. Umpire Angel Hernandez called the pitch strike two. The crowd howled, Aybar literally jumped up and down in the batters box in disbelief, and I briefly thought that the Dominican team was going to charge out of the dugout after Hernandez. Aybar lined the next pitch into right field and the Dominican team streamed out of the dugout to meet Cruz at home plate (check out that picture of Aybar above, celebrating an RBI single in the top of the ninth inning). After Aybar stole second, Jose Reyes singled him in, fist–pumping and practically dancing the whole way down the first base line. The Dominican team poured out of the dugout again to meet Aybar at the plate and the crowd erupted.
During the World Baseball Classic, most commentators and baseball writers have an annoying tic of trying to compare what happens in the WBC to what happens in the MLB playoffs in October. Having watched much of this year's tournament, I think that that's the wrong instinct. Why can't we let this tournament stand for what it is as something separate from the MLB season? The pro-Dominican crowd in Miami tonight didn't create an "Octoberesque" atmosphere– it was it's own separate entity unique from Major League Baseball. With horns blaring, flags waving, and players wearing their emotions on their sleeves, why can't we just say that it was both an intense and joyous game to watch without having to qualify against something that it doesn't resemble at all?
Of course none of the atmosphere would've been possible if the game itself had turned into a laugher and early on, it looked like we might be headed that way. In the first inning, Dominican starter Samuel Deduno found himself in a world of trouble after striking out Ryan Braun for the inning's second out. With Brandon Philips already on first, Joe Mauer and Giancarlo Stanton both singled, then Eric Hosmer drew a bases loaded walk to give the US a 1-0 lead. That left the bases still loaded for Adam Jones, who isn't exactly a prototypical seventh hitter. Deduno struck Jones out to escape the jam and Hanley Ramirez immediately rewarded him by tying the game up with a solo homer in the second.
From that point on, the pitching took over. Deduno was excellent in his last three innings of work, allowing just one hit and one walk to go with five more strikeouts. The Dominican bullpen was even better. Kelvim Herrera threw two hitless innings, only allowing Eric Hosmer to reach on an error. Octavio Dotel threw a perfect seventh inning. Pedro Strop was the weak link of the Dominican bullpen tonight; he had to face four hitters to get three outs, allowing Joe Mauer to reach base on a single. Francisco Rodney closed out the win with a perfect ninth.
Until that ninth inning, the US matched them zero for zero. RA Dickey looked like the reigning Cy Young winner after his ugly start against Mexico in Arizona; besides the Ramirez home run he scattered four other hits and struck out four. Luke Gregerson zipped through the sixth without trouble, then when Tim Collins got into trouble in the seventh, Steve Cishek came in to bail him out, then pitch a perfect eighth. It was only when Craig Kimbrel, who was so dominant in Atlanta last year, came into the game that the Dominican found a foothold to rally from. That came with Nelson Cruz's leadoff double, with lead to the dramatic hits from Aybar and Reyes.
All is not lost for the United States quite yet; they'll play again tomorrow night against Puerto Rico in an elimination game with the final semifinal berth on the line. Nelson Figueroa and Ryan Vogelsong are the expected starters. The atmosphere in Miami will likely be electric again. It took a while, but the World Baseball Classic is finally starting to grow into the international event that MLB and the IBAAF envisioned seven years ago.