MIAMI – That was Robinson Cano coming off the field wearing Tony Pena like a 200-pound necklace, Pena near tears.
That was Fernando Rodney, with a couple buddies, the three of them pelting the underside of the Marlins Park roof with invisible arrows.
That was the hombres of Republica Dominicana, coming over the dugout rail like spring-breakers at last call, greeting the go-ahead run, then the insurance run, their fans beside themselves with pride.
That was a night, all right.
On the basis of two ninth-inning runs against Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, the World Baseball Classic on Thursday advanced the Dominicans, 3-1 winners over Team USA at a crazed Marlins Park, into the semifinals. The U.S. plays Puerto Rico – Ryan Vogelsong vs. Nelson Figueroa – on Friday night in an elimination game. The winner goes to San Francisco and gets the Dominican Republic again Saturday for seeding purposes.
And the WBC grew up a little bit. If it seems that's said almost nightly now, well, that's because it's true. It comes with more emotion, with better players, with a crowd that leaned into and swayed (and blew horns) with every tiny moment.
Perhaps it is not baseball the way most of us are accustomed to. It's too early to invest as great players still drive away from spring training sites every afternoon. And this counts for nothing compared to an October chill. But, taken three hours at a time, the WBC has its worth. It is entertaining. The winners exult. The losers wish to stay, to keep playing.
Put them on a field and a competition is born. Thirty minutes after Kimbrel took the ball to hold a tie, after Nelson Cruz doubled, Erick Aybar singled and Jose Reyes singled; after two runs came home and Rodney made them stand up, Pena remained in a competition with his composure.
"Really, the Dominican people – it's giving a group of young men that is representing the 10 million inhabitants of the Dominican Republic," he said. "And as I said before, when you want to, you can. Where there is a will there is a way with a great victory, which is the best team that there is."
Team general manager Moises Alou, part of the '09 Dominicans who washed out, tweeted, "Gloria a Dios!" Roughly translated, "Woo-HOO!"
A nation whose population could almost squeeze into New York City had its team back. It had pitched with the U.S., it had played almost flawlessly, and when the game could be won, the Dominicans won it. Against Kimbrel's ridiculous stuff and plate umpire Angel Hernandez's equally ridiculous strike zone, Aybar, as a pinch-hitter, won it.
In the postgame hue, a bummed but undeterred Kimbrel said, "It feels like October, not March."
He hadn't allowed two runs or even two hits in a game since September 2011. Three times last season he allowed three hits – in a calendar month.
And then there was this. A double, an out, a single, an out and another single, followed by delirium and the odd D-O-M-I-N-I-C-A-N-A spell-out.
All very cool, all very fun, and all in the midst of a night in which the well-heeled U.S. offense mustered six singles and a bit of news. David Wright was lost for this game, Friday night's game, and probably the tournament because of lingering soreness in his left ribcage and back.
He spent the game alternately at the dugout rail, on which he'd rest his chin and lay his arms while peering dolefully at the field, or on the dugout bench, peering dolefully at the field. In fact, were he any more full of dole, they'd have had to carry him away in a wheelbarrow.
"This has been one of the best times I've ever had playing baseball," Wright said just before the game began. "I can only hope I haven't played my last game with Team USA."
The WBC had become his event. Not his alone, of course. But, as far as Team USA was concerned, this was the guy it could cling to for a while. Good dude. Great on camera. New Yorker. Loves this goofy tournament. Took the pet name "Captain America." And was absolutely raking.
Turned out, Wright had been waking up with soreness in his upper left ribcage, then going to the ballpark, then getting treatment, and then absolutely raking. The training staff keeps track of such things, records them, and forwards them to a player's home club. The Mets took an interest. After enough notifications, they decided perhaps Wright should return to Port St. Lucie, at least for an examination.
About 20 minutes before Thursday night's game, Wright pled his case to Joe Torre in the manager's office. About 15 minutes before the game, as the flags were being positioned for the anthems, Wright was scratched from the lineup. This was what the Mets wanted, according to Wright, and also what USA Baseball wanted.
Among the last things Torre said to Wright was along the lines of, "Last thing I'm going to do is mess with your career."
And that was that. Wright intended to leave Miami for Port St. Lucie late Thursday night, undergo an examination Friday morning and, depending on the results, either stay there or return. The Mets, of course, should keep him there, though Wright presumably will fight that if he has the slightest grounds to.
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He'd batted .438 in the tournament and driven in 10 runs. He'd stood in the fifth spot, behind Ryan Braun and Joe Mauer, in front of Eric Hosmer and Giancarlo Stanton. As a team they batted .306. They'd scored 24 runs in four games. It wasn't excessive, but it was plenty.
And then with him gone, after nine innings of Samuel Deduno, Kelvin Herrera, Octavio Dotel, Pedro Strop and Rodney, the U.S. had six singles and a single run. After the first inning, two baserunners reached scoring position. Stanton, subbing for Wright in the five hole, didn't get a ball out of the infield.
Of Wright's abrupt absence, Stanton said, "It kind of hit too fast to think about it at all. I didn't know what was going on. Nor do I now."
That's the way they left it, too. The Dominicans ran from the field, shouting as they did, and hugging, and waving to the people in their colors. The U.S. packed up and began to consider its second elimination game in as many rounds. And the WBC was better for it again.
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