USA TODAY Sport’s Bob Nightengale breaks down the teams to watch at this year’s World Baseball Classic.
USA TODAY Sports
MIAMI – They braced themselves for the conditions, but by the end of the night Saturday, Team USA was numb, trying to comprehend what just happened.
The atmosphere at Marlins Park was unlike anything most had ever experienced, even those who played on the biggest stage in October, and they walked to their team bus having never felt this dejected after a game played in March.
When the last horn sounded, the last tambourine shaken, and the marching band stopped playing, Team USA still was scrambling to gather its senses, watching the Dominican Republic pull off a stunning 7-5 comeback in the World Baseball Classic fueled by the raucous sell-out crowd of 37,446.
It was the largest crowd ever to watch a game at Marlins Park, and perhaps nearly three-quarters of the fans were cheering for the Dominican Republic.
“It was exactly like a playoff game,’’ said USA starter Marcus Stroman, who was brilliant in yielding just three hits in 4 2/3 innings. “It was like our wild-card game last year against Baltimore. Same type of atmosphere. Same type of feel.
“It was not like your normal crowd. You have a lot of horns and sirens and all that going on. I love pitching in an environment like this. It’s something I think I can thrive off.’’
Yet, while Stroman flourished, the atmosphere caused others to wilt, forcing USA into a critical game Sunday against Canada at 7 ET.
If the U.S. wins, they advance to the second round in San Diego. If they lose, they could be forced into a tiebreaker on Monday, or even be eliminated if Colombia upsets the Dominican Republic on Sunday afternoon.
The Dominican Republic hasn’t lost a WBC game in eight years, winning 10 consecutive behind a daunting and relentless collection of hitters.
“It’s an All-Star team,’’ Stroman said. “One through nine, there are no easy outs in the entire lineup.’’
The U.S., just six outs away from clinching a second-round berth, were up 5-0 in the sixth inning, and reliever Tanner Roark watched Manny Machado hit a home run that nearly left the stadium.
“I think after [Machado] hit the homer,’’ Dominican right fielder Nelson Cruz said, “the crowd, and we as players, we got pumped up too. That moment broke the ice, and that’s what we need to get going.’’
Roark, 30, who has been in the major leagues for four years with the Washington Nationals, admitted to succumbing to the pressure of the moment, letting the raucous crowd get inside his psyche.
“It was my fault, I got them going,’’ Roark said. “I gave them a little motivation, confidence, that’s on me. You have to block out the noise. I just think I needed to channel it a little bit better, block it out, and not let it get to me. I needed to slow the game down. I think I let it speed up on me.’’
It started to snowball. The Dominican added another run in the sixth on a Carlos Santana run-scoring single, and then another in the seventh on a Welington Castillo double off David Robertson. USA manager Jim Leyland, who warmed up Andrew Miller twice in the bullpen Friday night in their 10-inning victory over Colombia, decided he needed to stop the Dominican’s momentum.
Miller came out for the eighth with a 5-3 lead. Fifteen pitches later, he was pitching with a 7-5 deficit.
Cruz, on an 0-and-2 pitch, ripped a slider that curved around the foul pole for a three-run homer. Cruz pounded his arm in the air four times, wildly waving his arms as he rounded the bases, and nearly ripped off his jersey rounding third base. The Dominican Republic was up 6-5, and turned it to 7-5 with a Starling Marte homer that had Marlins Park shaking with jubilation.
“Even in Little League when you are a little kid you get so emotional that you don’t know what to do at that moment,’’ Cruz said. “Maybe for the whole of the Dominican Republic, I know that they were with us. The whole country stopped and is watching us.’’
And despite being 36, and a 12-year veteran, who has played in 41 postseason games, including two World Series, Cruz called it perhaps the biggest home run of his life.
“I think that the flavor, the taste of this one is most special,’’ Cruz said, “because you’re playing for your country. The people are supporting you. In the U.S. when you play the game, it is like a business. When you leave, people forget about you.
“But when you play for the Dominican Republic, the fans always support you.’’
It’s a feeling the American players have yet to actually experience on the international stage, watching fans from the Dominican Republic fly into Miami for their game, with tickets being scalped as high as $1,000, and Team USA feeling as if they’re foreigners on their own soil.
“The atmosphere was incredible,’’ Miller said, “but I don’t know if I was enjoying it. We had a lead the entire game, and their fans were pretty raucous. When you play in these type of circumstances, it’s like being a Yankee and going to Fenway or vice-versa. Those are the fun experiences as a player you want to thrive in, and take part in. The fans were incredible, and it was a blast to be a part of it.
“I just wish I could have gone out there, done my job, and kept them quiet.’’
The experience alone, Roark says, should help them later in the tournament. Next time, perhaps they won’t be rattled. They’ll be prepared, anticipating a hostile environment, where the fans stand on their feet the entire game, screaming until their lungs hurt, or shaking their noise-makers until their hands are raw.
They just hope they have the opportunity to experience it once again, facing the Dominican Republic one more time in San Diego, and maybe even again in the finals in Los Angeles.
“I want to pitch in this atmosphere,’’ Miller said. “I want to get better and pitch in games like this, and play on teams like this, and play against a lineup like that.
“It’s a special thing that you get to participate in.’’
And, when you win, ooh, baby, just ask the Dominicans.
“This is how we play baseball,’’ Machado said of their fiery, emotional intensity. “This is how we were raised to play. This is the only baseball we know.
“What they did tonight, the crowd kept us in the game the entire time. Once we got fired up, we went from there. You can’t really put into emotions everything that happened today.
“It was unbelievable.