SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – They are, admittedly, a ragtag bunch. The pudgy starting pitcher who ate and drank and misbehaved himself out of a job. The 34-year-old whose fastball looks like a changeup. The closer who had never closed a game in his life. And in charge of this baseball team representing the Netherlands, a manager named Rod Delmonico.
"I mean, his name is Delmonico," pitcher Rob Cordemans said. "He's not even Dutch. Got to be Italian."
Cordemans laughed. Nothing could wipe the grin off his face Saturday. The Netherlands – a team comprised of Dutch, along with others from Curacao, Aruba and even Canada, and almost all no-names – had just pulled off perhaps the most stunning upset in international baseball history, beating an All-Star-laden Dominican Republic team 3-2 in the first round of the World Baseball Classic.
The Netherlands mustered three hits. One went to the pitcher. Another bounced in front of the catcher. The third couldn't get past the shortstop. Only three Netherlands balls escaped the infield all afternoon at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, all for outs, and somehow still they beat the team of David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and so many other Major League standouts.
So when the Dominican's Jose Bautista stared at a third strike to end the ninth inning, the Netherlands' players – clad in black uniforms with orange trim, looking Halloween chic – raced out of their dugout toward the mound and jumped around like they'd won the World Series.
Because that's how it felt.
"It's passion," said Sidney Ponson, the winning pitcher who impressed in his effort to convince a major-league team to give him another opportunity after blowing so many. "Why not enjoy it? We just won the game. We upset one of the best teams in the WBC. Everybody knows it. I think everybody in here will tell you the same thing. It was a big thing."
Bigger than the previous landmark victory for the Netherlands, a win over Cuba in the 2000 Olympics. Bigger than anything the WBC's organizers could have envisioned, as the Dominicans advancing to the second round in Miami was a foregone conclusion. And though he was loath to admit it, bigger than Delmonico ever figured, even after the previous day he had bought into the David-vs.-Goliath chatter by saying Ponson was keeping a rock in his back pocket.
"I forgot to tell you," Delmonico said, "that some of our bullpen had rocks in their back pockets, too."
The Netherlands parlayed two of those infield hits into three runs in the first inning, thanks to a pair of errors from a Dominican team that looked as sloppy as it is talented. By the time Ponson's day ended, he yielded two runs and handed the game for the final five innings to a group of pitchers without a day of major-league experience.
Cordemans was a revelation, throwing a misnomer – a fastball that wasn't – and a changeup that, to the Dominican hitters, looked straight from Bugs Bunny's arm. It danced across the plate at 64 mph, and even though it stayed up in the strike zone, Cordemans twice got outs from Miguel Tejada with two men on base. Tejada stranded seven runners in the game.
"Fastball, on a good day, is 88," Cordemans said. "I don't think it was a good day."
No, it was rather great. Dennis Neuman, a 19-year-old in the Red Sox organization, pitched a scoreless eighth inning and ceded the ninth to Leon Boyd, a Canadian who had never pitched in relief before.
He starts for DOOR Neptunus in the Hoofdklasse, the Dutch league that plays at the same level as Class A minor-league baseball in the United States. Boyd grew up in Vancouver and joined the Hoofdklasse because no major-league team showed interest and his mother had Dutch ancestry. He makes $2,000 a month to play there and enjoys none of the perks the Dominican players get in the big leagues.
Didn't matter to Boyd. This was history for his team and his adopted country. Soccer is the sport of choice in the Netherlands. Baseball rarely makes it on NOS, the lone all-sports television station in the Netherlands, and this was a rare opportunity to show the country why the team even bothered with an entry into the WBC.
Boyd walked the leadoff hitter, naturally, as a game so big needed the requisite drama. Willy Taveras, whose baserunning blunder earlier in the game prevented him from scoring the tying run, made another: He took off for third base on his own and got thrown out by Kenley Jansen. Ramirez walked, and up came Bautista, setting up the final scene.
"Everybody was trying to maul me," Boyd said, and, yeah, that's an accurate representation. The Netherlands players caroused while the Dominicans slinked off the field, unsure how, exactly, they'd lost to a group of guys who they wouldn't know from someone on the street.
They're not out of the tournament yet. To advance, they must win Monday in the losers' bracket, then follow with another victory the next day. The likely opponent in the latter game? The Netherlands, provided the favored Puerto Rico team wins its first two games.
Then again, it's folly to doubt the Netherlands, right?
"We didn't really think the Dominicans took us seriously," Cordemans said. "They probably went out partying. That's OK. We went to bed early, and we got a couple of runs early."
Asleep they were on Friday night at 11 p.m., per Delmonico's orders. If they were going to pull off the upset of upsets, they needed a good night's sleep. And it was good. The dream lasted all the way into the afternoon.
- Rob Cordemans
- Rod Delmonico