By Gabriel Fidler
SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Puerto Rico played with a passion and enthusiasm that the baseball world will long remember, and defeated the Dominican Republic 3-1 in a thrilling rematch of the 2013 World Baseball Classic Championship. Yadier Molina led a team that competed with a mixture of youthful passion and veteran steadiness and excelled in every facet of the game.
Dominican and Puerto Rican fans showed up to Petco Park ready for what was expected to be one of the best games of the WBC, and it did not disappoint. The action started immediately, as Jean Segura reached on a single through the left side and moved to third on a double by Manny Machado. Two batters later, Carlos Santana lifted a fly to right, and Puerto Rican rightfielder Eddie Rosario unleashed a laser of a throw that nailed a tagging Segura at home to end the inning.
Puerto Rico capitalised on the incredible play in the bottom of the frame when Yadier Molina singled home Francisco Lindor, who had drawn a walk, with two outs, and took a 1-0 lead. Lindor was exultant as he crossed home plate, and the team emptied to give him high fives.
The lead was short-lived, as the second inning started with Nelson Cruz ripping a line drive to right field off Orlando Román that just kept carrying, and left the park to tie the game at one.
After a rough first inning, the Dominican Republic’s Carlos Martínez looked much better in the second and third, but ran into trouble in the fourth. Javier Báez reached on a one-out throwing error by Adrián Béltre and scored on a ground rule double by Eddie Rosario. The inning would end with a big called strike three on Ángel Pagán, and Martínez walked off pumping his first.
Neither side threatened in the fifth, and tension mounted in the one-run game. However, Yadier Molina gave Puerto Rico breathing room in the bottom of the sixth, leading off with a roundtripper to left that had Francisco Lindor jumping for joy.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s bullpen was superb, as Héctor Santiágo tossed 2 2/3 frames in the middle innings to allow manager Edwin Rodríguez to end the game with his best relievers. Joseph Cólon was brilliant in the seventh and eighth, and the penultimate frame concluded with Molina gunning down Nelson Cruz on a steal attempt.
Puerto Rico could not increase its lead against Dellin Betances in the bottom of the frame, and Edwin Díaz took the hill to close out the game. Pumping a 98-mph fastball and an 88-mph slider, the Mariners’ rookie closer struck out Béltre swinging and ended the game with a dramatic called strike three on Segura. The team rushed the field, as Puerto Rico started Pool F with the historic win.
Not only did the victory snap an 11-game WBC winning streak for the Dominican Republic, it was the first time Puerto Rico had beaten its island neighbours in Classic play since 2006.
After the game, I spoke with Edwin Rodríguez, congratulating him on the sensational win and noting that the game was exactly what his team had shown in the previous week in Guadalajara, except turned up an extra notch.
“Well, you described that perfectly. We’ve been playing well, very well,” agreed the skipper. “We played very well in Mexico. Then, facing a team like Dominican, I think you got it right. I mean, the motivation was there. We were waiting for this for four years, and they were at their best. I mean, offensively, defensively, and on the mound.”
Rodríguez elaborated more on his team’s victory in the press conference, observing, “That particular play of Eddie Rosario, that transferred the enthusiasm to Puerto Rico. That really upped the ante, and provided the energy throughout the game.”
Molina had two hits and two RBI, the only Puerto Rican player with more than one of either. Carlos Correa reached base three times, drawing a pair of walks. Gregory Polanco was the only Dominican player to collect two hits, one of which was a double.
“As Yadier Molina goes, the team goes because he brings so much, not only defensively, but he also brings offensively,” explained Rodríguez. “The way he handles the pitching, well, we saw [the difference he makes] tonight. We’ve been watching that for years in the big leagues and with Team Puerto Rico. But definitely, he’s the heart of the team.”
Santiágo earned the win, and teamed with Joe Jiménez, Cólon, and Díaz to hurl 6 2/3 scoreless frames. While Puerto Rico struck out 10 Dominicans, it gave up a lot of contact early in the game, but limited the damage with key outs. Puerto Rican pitchers held the D.R. hitless with runners in scoring position, and the Dominicans left nine runners on base. Martínez took the loss, surrendering two runs, one earned, on three hits and three walks. He struck out five in four innings. Héctor Neris, Enny Romero, and Betances closed out the contest.
The underlying story of the game, though, was the exuberance of Francisco Lindor, who collected a hit and a walk, scored the opening run, and teamed up with Correa for a nice 5-4 putout. It was Lindor’s reactions in-between plays that drew positive attention, however, from his jubilant leaps to a humorous exchange of throws after a key Cólon strikeout.
I asked Lindor following the game whether tonight was exactly what he had always dreamed of.
“Yeah, yeah, for sure! I grew up watching Yadi, and watching the guys, watching Beltrán doing it,” replied Lindor. “So I just wanted to represent my country and do it, you know? I’m doing it for the country. I’m doing it for my family. I’m doing it for my teammates.
“Why not celebrate? I’m going to celebrate,” added the jovial shortstop. “I’m not disrespecting the game. I’m not trying to disrespect anybody. I’m just going to be myself and I’m going to share with my teammates our success.”
The Dominican Republic will take a day off before playing Venezuela on Thursday at 7 p.m. local time (3 a.m. Friday GMT). The D.R. has never lost to Venezuela in WBC play, defeating them once in 2013 and twice in 2006.
Asked in the post-game press conference how the team would recuperate after this loss, Dominican manager Tony Peña did not mince words: “How? Simple [pause]. We are going to return and we are going to win. I believe in each and every one of those young men. We have a great team. Believe me, we will return.
Puerto Rico has two days off before facing the United States on Friday at 7 p.m. local time (3 a.m. Friday GMT). It is 2-1 against the Americans in Classic history.
Extra Innings will have live coverage of both games, along with tomorrow’s 6 p.m. (2 a.m. GMT) Venezuela-USA showdown, @extrainnings_bb.