The first two times the Dominican Republic participated in the World Baseball Classic with star-studded teams, overconfidence and pressure doomed them.
None of that seems to be bothering them this time around. With a festive crowd of 25,846 at Marlins Park cheering them on Saturday afternoon, the Dominicans checked out of Round 2 the way they did Round 1 — with an unbeaten record and another win over Latin American rival Puerto Rico.
Wandy Rodriguez tossed six scoreless innings, catcher Carlos Santana hit a solo home run and Robinson Cano took home Most Valuable Player honors in a 2-0 victory.
Up next for both teams: a trip to the semifinals at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.
Two-time defending champion Japan will face Puerto Rico Sunday night. The Dominicans, who lost twice to the Netherlands and were eliminated by them in the first round of the 2009 tournament, get a shot at redemption against the Dutch Monday night. The championship game is Tuesday.
“You cannot play baseball without freedom,” Dominican manager Tony Pena said. “You have to have freedom to do whatever you want on the field, provided you don’t break the rules of the game. My players, none of them are breaking the rules of the game. What they are simply doing is enjoying what they love, what they like to do and the way they work, and I’m not going to stop it. This is meant to be enjoyed; they are enjoying it.”
As usual, Fernando Rodney came in and tied the bow in the ninth, earning his tournament leading fifth save and celebrating it by firing an imaginary arrow into the sky.
Puerto Rico, which produced just three hits, didn’t have many chances to score. But they did have runners in scoring position. Dominican shortstop Erick Aybar, though, made two perfect throws to erase those threats.
In the third, he fielded a grounder from Andy Gonzalez and gunned out pinch-runner Irving Falu at the plate. In the eighth, after catcher Martin Maldonado reached on a walk and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt, Aybar fielded another grounder from Gonzalez and gunned Maldonado out at the third.
Later in the inning, Jesus Feliciano drove a 3-2 pitch deep down the right field line with a runner on and two outs. But the ball, which would have gone out for a home run, sailed about 15 feet right of the foul pole. After drawing a walk and putting runners on first and second, pinch-hitter Pedro Valdes stepped to the plate against Santiago Casilla and grounded out to second to end the threat.
Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said although his team has the tough task of taking a long flight out to the West Coast and playing an experienced Japanese team that has had time off since advancing out of Round 2, his team is ready.
“We were also at a disadvantage against Venezuela and a disadvantage when we got here,” the former Marlins skipper said. “So the players and the team have already learned how to play in these types of situations, and we are still here among the [last] four.”
Right-hander Mario Santiago, who spent last season pitching in Korean Baseball League, will start for Puerto Rico.
The Dominicans will send Padres ace Edinson Volquez to the mound to start against the Netherlands. Twins right-hander Samuel Deduno, who pitched five innings of one-run ball against the United States, is in line to start the final Tuesday night.
“I wouldn’t call it [collecting] a debt,” Cano said of facing the Dutch. “You have to forget what happened in the past and play hard. It’s a matter of winning each game to remain in the fight.”
Organizers for the WBC were more than pleased with the attendance at Marlins Park. In all, a total of 154,624 passed through the gates for the six games played in South Florida.
“The Marlins staff from Jeffrey Loria to David Samson to Claude Delorme to all the guys in the ticket office, these guys did an amazing job,” said Tim Brosnan, the Executive Vice President for Business for Major League Baseball.
“Their customer hospitality and how the ballpark has been handled and presented we really couldn’t have asked for a better host. Anyone lucky enough to be at the U.S.-Dominican game the other night witnessed a baseball game for the ages on a beautiful night in a beautiful ballpark with a level of intensity that you dream about this tournament ending.”
Asked if Miami might serve as the host for the finals in 2017, Brosnan said: “I think based on the performance we’re coming off of right now, the sky is the limit for this stadium, for this city, for this franchise as the host — whatever round they decide to bid on.”