DETERMINED DOMINICANS DOMINATE WBC
BY LUIGUI BARRAGAN
Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters
You can say that the weight of their world, their country that is, was on their shoulders. The memory of that humiliating loss to the Netherlands that eliminated them in the first round of the previous World Baseball Classic in 2009 still assailed the minds of their countrymen and women. Beaten, on a world stage, at their own game. Players and coaches for the Dominican Republic talked all tournament long about putting the memory of that loss behind them and focusing solely on their performance in this year’s WBC, leaving the past where it belonged. Yet they were always one question in a post-game press conference away, a video replay of it on the stadium big screen during batting practice, or the never timely taunt of an unruly fan yelling at them over the railing, from being reminded of it. Rock bottom for Dominican baseball. Manager Tony Peña, however, has been the voice in the team’s other ear. Reminding them that they cannot undo the past. Urging them to learn from what happened in the past so that it doesn’t happen to them again in the present. Keeping them concentrated on the one thing that could erase that painful memory: the title of World Baseball Classic Champions in 2013.
The memory of four years ago, however, left its mark. A bruise you fear touching again because of the sting you feel every time something comes in contact with it. Yet only the sting helped shape the resolve of these Dominican players. “After what happened in ’09, there were a lot of guys that they said, ‘I want to be on the team,’ and they kept their word, and they’re here,” Team Dominican Republic General Manager Moises Alou said. “Because of what happened they wanted to give back to the country, show the country that we are good players.” Many of them chose no rest after their Major League season ended last fall; committing instead to playing winter league baseball in their native land. Committing to workouts, throwing sessions, anything and everything that could keep them in baseball shape for the upcoming World Baseball Classic. They were committed to winning the championship. They were committed to their country. They were committed to each other.
The same sense of purpose that unified them in the clubhouse made them unbeatable on the field. A record of 7 wins and 0 losses. The seventh victory no doubt was heavenly as it came against the Netherlands and sent the Dominican Republic to their first ever WBC final. The Dominicans got their revenge over the Dutch, but their mission was not complete.
Reaching the championship game of a World Baseball Classic was unchartered territory for a Dominican squad. Their adversary in the title game, however, would at least be a familiar foe in team Puerto Rico. Far from perfect, Puerto Rico had already lost three times in this tournament, twice to the Dominican Republic. Of Puerto Rico’s five wins in this WBC, three came while facing elimination. Feeling battle-tested and confident for this final, Puerto Rico came in as the team with nothing to lose. The Dominicans, on the other hand, were poised to do something that had never been done before in the history of this tournament: win the WBC crown without losing a game.
The D.R. wasted no time in asserting themselves in this final between two Caribbean rivals. A pair of doubles in the first inning, one by shortstop Jose Reyes off the right field wall on the game’s third pitch, and another by first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, after second baseman Robinson Cano was intentionally walked, produced two runs and put the Dominican ahead 2-0. Not squandering the early scoring opportunity was “huge,” admitted Reyes. It helped take some of the pressure off of their already over-burdened shoulders.
As their challenges in this tournament grew larger, team Dominican Republic also leaned on the shoulders, not to mention the arms, of their pitching staff. Beating an archrival like Puerto Rico for the third time in nine days was not going to be easy. A big challenge indeed. “I like challenges,” affirmed starting pitcher Samuel Deduno who took the mound for the third time in this WBC for the Dominican. And Deduno never flinched. Not in the first inning when Puerto Rico had a runner in scoring position and their two biggest home run threats coming to bat in designated hitter Carlos Beltran and catcher Yadier Molina. Deduno struck them both out with mesmerizing breaking balls. Likewise in the second inning, Puerto Rican right fielder Alex Rios and first baseman Carlos Rivera went down swinging to end the frame. Victims of Deduno’s deadly pitching. Of the first seven batters Deduno faced, four struck out. Leading off the fourth inning, Beltran and Molina looked to get the Puerto Rican offense going against Deduno. This time, Beltran wouldn’t bite on any of Deduno’s pitches outside of the strike zone, content with taking a walk and letting Molina do the damage. Molina chose not to swing at Deduno’s first offering. The fifth Deduno pitch in-a-row laid off of by a Puerto Rican batter. The pitch, however, slid in for a strike. Molina was done looking and swung hard at the next pitch. The ball shot out of the batter’s box and headed towards first base, Molina trailing behind it. Dominican first baseman Edwin Encarnacion stepped in front of the bag and welcomed the ball into his glove. A momentum killing 3-6-3 double play ensued. Deduno was reminded that he didn’t have to do it alone. He could depend on his teammates to have his back both on offense and defense.
Sparkling defensive plays, like the double play in the fourth inning and centerfielder Alejandro De Aza’s running, over-the-shoulder catch in the fifth, stifled Puerto Rico every time they looked to breakthrough against 29-year-old, right-hander Samuel Deduno. Yet with two out in the top of the fifth inning, Deduno faced his biggest challenge of the game. Puerto Rico now had the tying run on base and it’s best hitter in this WBC, Major League centerfielder Angel Pagan, at the plate. Deduno tried to get Pagan to chase three pitches to the outside part of the plate. Pagan wasn’t buying and was able to negotiate a two balls, one strike count. That’s when Deduno decided to move inside with his pitches and go in for the kill. The next two pitches by Deduno had the same trajectory, and produced the same result. Two wicked breaking balls that dropped to the ground as soon as they got near home plate. Pagan swung and got his bat on the first one, hitting it foul. The second breaking pitch inside fooled Pagan altogether and ended the Puerto Rican offensive threat in the fifth. A total of five pitches got Deduno his fifth strike out of the game and got the Dominican Republic out of the top half of the fifth inning with its lead intact.
Deduno had done his job. He got the D.R. through five innings and now it was time for Manager Tony Peña to hand the ball over to his “horses” in the bullpen. The first “horse” out of the gate, in relief of Deduno, was veteran 39-year-old right-hander Octavio Dotel. Dotel cut through the heart of the Puerto Rican batting order in the sixth unscathed. But in the seventh, Dotel stumbled as he began his second lap against the Puerto Rican offense. Shortstop Mike Aviles singled to center and right fielder Alex Rios took first base on a walk with nobody out. Needing to protect a fragile 3-0 lead, Peña looked to his stable and called upon right-hander Pedro Strop to take over for Dotel. Strop kept his pitches down and struck out the first two batters he faced. Leftfielder Jesus Feliciano was Puerto Rico’s last hope in the seventh. Feliciano refused to swing at Strop’s first three pitches. Strop got Feliciano to engage in the fight by the fourth pitch, a pop-up hit into foul ground along the third base side. Dominican Republic third baseman Miguel Tejada gave chase, climbing the pitcher’s mound of the open-air bullpen in foul territory. The wind took hold of the baseball in mid-descend and changed its trajectory away from Tejada at the last minute. With momentum carrying his body in one direction, Tejada stretched out his left arm in the opposite direction and claimed the ball for the third out of the inning. Gravity helped Tejada by prying the baseball from the grasp of the wind, but hurt him once it delivered the ball into his glove. The 38 year-old third base man’s body absorbed the impact meant for the falling baseball. Tejada landed on his ribs, his left arm bent at a 90-degree angle, and his glove hand pointed up, holding tight to the ball. The play knocked the wind out of Tejada for the moment and took the wind out of Puerto Rico’s sails yet again.
Puerto Rico was the last team to score a run off of Dominican relief pitching in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. It happened the first time these two teams squared off against one other in this WBC, nine days prior to the championship match. Twenty three and two-thirds innings had gone by since Peña’s “horses” in the bullpen allowed a run in this tournament. With the championship race now down to its final two laps, Peña chose a pair of right-handers to finish the job. Thirty-two year-old Santiago Casilla took to the hill in the eighth inning and blew past the Puerto Rican batsmen in just twelve pitches. The anchor leg, the ninth inning, belonged to 36 year-old Fernando Rodney. Peña’s closer, his most trusted steed out of the bullpen, trotted out to the mound for the eighth time in this competition. Rodney left his mark on every game played by his team in this WBC. Now, Rodney pitched to erase the mark left by that painful memory from four years ago.
For the sixth time in nine innings, Puerto Rico put their lead-off man on base. On every occasion, that lead-off man never made it past second base. “That had to be the best bullpen I’ve ever seen,” Alou said. “We have the best closer in the big leagues last year pitching for us [in Fernando Rodney]. This guy has been pitching for me since winter ball. He went to the Caribbean Series. He hasn’t stopped pitching. This is a guy that we trust and this is a guy that we love. He’s so determined to compete for his country and you could see that in the way that he played.” Alex Rios knew he had the power to hit the ball out of the park and make this a one-run game. He already had a 394-foot homer to his credit in the semifinal game against Japan. But against Rodney, Rios was powerless to do more than pop the ball up to second baseman Robinson Cano. The first out of the inning. “I know that he [Rodney] pitched in every game,” Peña said. “But we had to do whatever we had to do to win the ballgame and he was electric.” Rodney recorded a total of seven saves, allowing only one hit and no runs in the eight games he participated in. Against Puerto Rican first baseman Carlos Rivera, Rodney was “lights out.” Rivera made contact with only one of the five pitches thrown to him by Rodney. He sent that ball foul for strike number two. The last pitch of the at-bat hog-tied Rivera and left him looking the ball right into the mitt of catcher Carlos Santana for strike three. Two out in the bottom of the ninth. “You have to tip your hat to the Dominican pitching and you have to tip your hat to the Dominican ballclub,” Puerto Rican manager Edwin Rodriguez said. “Because, not only do they have big names but they also play with a lot of passion and play with a lot of commitment.” That’s the “Dominican way,” Alou said. A formula that had brought them to within one out of making their dreams come true. Rodney quickly jumped ahead in the count to pinch hitter Luis Figueroa, recording his first two pitches to him for strikes. Rodney missed the mark, however, on his next three pitches, delaying the celebration in his homeland. Rodney decided not to keep them waiting any longer. He attacked Figueroa with a pitch that was chest-high and down the center of plate. The pitch was simply too good to pass up. Figueroa took a swing. The pitch, however, was also too good to be able to hit. Swing-and-a-miss, strike three. Ten million Dominican countrymen and women could now begin to celebrate the long awaited title: World Baseball Classic Champions of 2013. “This win is all about the Dominican Republic,” Reyes said. “They were hungry, waiting for this moment and we did it. We gave everything that we had and we left it on the field.” “When I was named the manager of this team for the World Baseball Classic,” Peña said, “at the introductory press conference in the Dominican Republic, I said that I was fed up with the embarrassment suffered by the Dominican Republic in these sorts of international competitions being that the Dominican Republic produces so many baseball players. I had had enough of that embarrassment. Thank God, this group of men were able to accomplish what we wanted to do: place our country at the very top of the baseball world.” A vantage point best appreciated after you’ve hit rock bottom.