WBC packs drama in hotly an­tic­i­pated U.S.-Do­mini­can Repub­lic first-round game.


The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - WORLD BASE­BALL CLAS­SIC BY DAVE SHEININ dave.sheinin@wash­post.com

mi­ami — Though he was stand­ing on a raised, red-dirt plot of Amer­i­can soil, with “USA” em­bla­zoned across his chest, every­thing that con­fronted An­drew Miller on Satur­day night must have felt for­eign, sur­real and a lit­tle dan­ger­ous. The at­mos­phere around the hotly an­tic­i­pated U.S./Do­mini­can Repub­lic show­down in the World Base­ball Clas­sic felt less like a base­ball game than a World Cup match, the set­ting less like Florida than Santo Domingo and the nine Do­mini­can hit­ters in the op­pos­ing dugout less like a lineup than a fir­ing squad.

No­body in Amer­ica is sup­posed to care about the WBC, and out­side of Mar­lins Park, per­haps few did. But on a Satur­day night in March, in­side the sleek sta­dium in Lit­tle Ha­vana, this tour­na­ment de­liv­ered a game, an at­mos­phere and a mo­ment that could hold its own against the best of October base­ball. It had the vic­to­ri­ous Do­mini­can play­ers stream­ing out of their dugout, Miller curs­ing un­der his breath and a sell­out crowd made up largely of Do­mini­can fans cre­at­ing an un­holy noise that lit­er­ally shook the sta­dium.

All the Do­mini­cans had to do to es­cape with a 7-5 vic­tory was mount a four-run rally against ar­guably the best re­lief pitcher in the game — the great Miller, the in­de­fati­ga­ble bullpen ace of the 2016 post­sea­son, an of­ten un­hit­table lefty who hadn’t given up four runs in an out­ing in more than four years.

Hold­ing a 5-3 lead as he en­tered the game in the eighth, Miller, whose bril­liant per­for­mance for the Cleve­land In­di­ans left that team on the verge of a World Se­ries ti­tle nearly five months ago, sur­ren­dered a three­run homer to Nel­son Cruz and a solo homer to Star­ling Marte to send the Amer­i­cans to a stag­ger­ing loss in a game in which it had led al­most the en­tire way. At each swing of the bat, the Do­mini­can play­ers swarmed out of their dugout to greet their team­mates at the plate.

“We had our shot,” Team USA Man­ager Jim Ley­land said. “We got a two-run lead and had An­drew Miller com­ing in.”

A sta­dium-record crowd of 37,446 — of which per­haps 80 per­cent were Do­mini­can fans — packed into Mar­lins Park for a game that had been sold out for weeks. A good num­ber of them brought drums, horns and any­thing else that made noise, and they un­leashed all of it to­ward Miller as the game reached its cli­max in the eighth. A hit bat­ter and a ground­ball sin­gle up the mid­dle pre­ceded Cruz’s go-ahead homer, which barely stayed in­side the left field foul pole.

The mighty Do­mini­cans have won 10 straight WBC games, eight of them com­ing dur­ing their un­de­feated march to the ti­tle in 2013. The Amer­i­cans, mean­while, have never fin­ished bet­ter than fourth place in three pre­vi­ous WBCs, drop­ping to 11-11 over­all with Satur­day’s loss. Both the United States and Do­mini­can Repub­lic are likely to ad­vance to the sec­ond round out of Pool C, with the cham­pi­onship game sched­uled for March 22 at Dodger Sta­dium.

The Amer­i­cans had led by as many as five runs, thanks largely to a su­perb 42/3 in­ning start from Mar­cus Stro­man. But Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als right-han­der Tan­ner Roark gave up three runs in an un­steady, ab­bre­vi­ated out­ing of 11/3 in­nings that in­cluded a solo homer by Manny Machado — an Amer­i­can of Do­mini­can de­scent who went to high school a few miles from Mar­lins Park but chose to play for his an­ces­tral home­land.

The WBC re­mains plagued by a dis­con­nect be­tween the pas­sion and drama pro­duced on the field and the in­dif­fer­ence that greets the tour­na­ment do­mes­ti­cally, and Team USA is the big­gest vic­tim of that gap.

While the U.S. team did with­out the quar­tet of hit­ters who swept the past four MVP awards (Mike Trout and Kris Bryant in 2016, Josh Don­ald­son and Bryce Harper in 2015) — all of whom de­clined in­vi­ta­tions to join Team USA — the Do­mini­can lineup was a mur­der­ers’ row packed with a for­mer bat­ting champ (Jose Reyes), home run champs (Cruz, Jose Bautista, Adrian Bel­tre) and mere all-stars.

The trickle-down of Amer­i­can in­dif­fer­ence to­ward the WBC be­gins in the front of­fices, where gen­eral man­agers are hes­i­tant to do­nate their best and of­ten most ex­pen­sive play­ers to a cause that has lit­tle or noth­ing to do with win­ning a World Se­ries — a risk driven home by the ap­par­ent knee in­jury suf­fered by Venezue­lan Sal­vador Perez, the Kansas City Roy­als’ all-star catcher, on Satur­day night in an­other WBC game. It ex­tends to many of the top Amer­i­can play­ers in the game, who told Team USA of­fi­cials — whether fully of their own vo­li­tion or with a nudge from their teams — thanks but no thanks.

And by all ac­counts, it is shared by Amer­i­can fans, who gorge them­selves on big league base­ball from Fe­bru­ary to October and view the WBC largely as a cu­rios­ity, rather than the epic, in­ter­na­tional ex­trav­a­ganza it is con­sid­ered in Latin Amer­ica and Asia.

But there was no bet­ter ad­ver­tise­ment for the WBC than the game that was played at Mar­lins Park on Satur­day night. No­body had to ex­plain to the ec­static Do­mini­cans or the de­spon­dent Amer­i­cans why they should care about it. And if no one else across this coun­try was moved by what hap­pened, then per­haps there is noth­ing more that can be done.

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