World Baseball Classic: Once inferior, Puerto Rico one win away from bragging rights

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports
Puerto Rico beat the Netherlands, 4-3, in 11 innings at Dodger Stadium. (Getty Images)
Puerto Rico beat the Netherlands, 4-3, in 11 innings at Dodger Stadium. (Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — There is a remarkable spirit in the Puerto Rico national baseball team, the one that played Monday into the World Baseball Classic final. With that spirit, there is a showman, one that plays to the crowd that is present and calls to the people of their island. Thought inferior to neighboring teams not long ago in the Dominican Republic, in Venezuela, in Cuba, in America, the Puerto Rico baseball franchise has grown into the place of Molina, of Lindor, of Baez, of Correa, others, men — most of them young — so that the game suits them, and they, it. Maybe they do lack the numbers of players. But, then, they only require nine at any one time.

They play, for one, as if there are no consequences in defeat. As though the greater regret would be in not having a hell of a time doing it, whatever the outcome, even when the outcome is most important of all.

And now the team that only lost in the WBC final four years ago is again the team that is maybe better than you thought, that wins on small deeds in a tournament designed to expose small deeds, to turn them into catastrophe, that throws friends and strangers into two weeks of chaos and dares them to play ball.

Puerto Rico beat the Netherlands, 4-3, in 11 innings at Dodger Stadium. They are 7-0 in the tournament. They won on a walk-off sacrifice fly by Eddie Rosario after WBC rules placed runners at first and second to start the 11th, after the Dutch rolled into a double play with the bases loaded in the top of the inning.

“It means a lot,” said Carlos Correa, the 22-year-old Houston Astros shortstop turned third baseman for this event, “because Puerto Ricans have gone through a very difficult situation currently and we were able to unite our country. … We have united the country through sports.”

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Also, through personality. Through blond heads. Through razor-sharp baseball that typically has no place in March. Through a big ol’ party that for three or four hours becomes a ballgame.

“I think,” Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens said, “they’re the strongest team we’ve faced in the tournament.”

So, the first inning Monday night. Seems like forever ago, granted. Given it ended 2-2, no blood, it would hardly be worth a mention, except for it being among the stranger and cooler innings ever, and except it began with the Netherlands conducting itself as if it had never heard of Yadier Molina and ended with the entire Puerto Rican team conducting an aerobics class at home plate, only with patriotism. Like they flash-mobbed the WBC, the tournament that provides the rare games on U.S. soil in which players grant each other their baseball emotions, their baseball cultures. Want to flip a bat? Go. Want to scream to the heavens? Louder, dude. Want to expose your chest, Superman style? It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Nelson Cruz.

Which is, among other things, what makes the WBC so charming. So watchable. So … fun.

Anyway, they had a flag. They did jumping jacks. They clung to each other and danced in circles. They rubbed their own yellow hair and their neighbor’s yellow hair, all of it yellow for the benefit of this tournament. By opening day there’ll be some pretty serious conversations to be had about roots.

As we were saying, this was in the first inning.

Correa homered to tie the score, 2-2, off a curveball from Rick van den Hurk that hung for so long the dry cleaners were within their rights to keep it.

If you didn’t know the score or the inning, and had just wandered up the hill from Echo Park because, why not, there were plenty of empty seats, you might’ve believed Puerto Rico had won on a walk-off home run. In actuality, there had been all of four outs recorded, Netherlands had just thrown its 16th pitch, and the folks who were here hadn’t yet completely untangled the whole Curacao-Netherlands-Aruba connection.

And that wasn’t the half of it, it being the first inning.

I don’t know if the WBC has “annals” yet. They’re only four tournaments into this thing and honestly it’s hard to remember much about any of them, beyond a vague sense they happened. Still, Yadier Molina’s first inning was annals worthy.

Andrelton Simmons, Dutch leadoff hitter, reached first on an infield single. Then Xander Bogaerts was hit with a pitch in the back. Jurickson Profar, up next, squared around and withdrew his bat and then Molina had the ball in his mitt and Simmons was about 15 feet off second base. Molina, who could’ve run the ball out and tagged Simmons he was so far off base, instead picked him off with a throw. Molina moment No. 1.

No longer in a position to bunt, Profar singled to right field. He was very pleased about that. The Netherlands was rallying. So he curled around first base as the throw from right field went to the plate, then turned and threw his arms in the air, encouraging the light crowd to rally up for his squad, and shouted something encouraging to his bench, this all as he trod confidently back to first base. At which point Molina flung the ball to first baseman T.J. Rivera, who tagged the distracted Profar on the right thigh for the second out of the inning. At which point Profar stopped gesturing and shouting and stared into space, presumably thinking, Well that just happened.

“For me, that was the game,” Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. “That first inning that Yadi Molina did what he did, for me, that was the game. Again, Yadier Molina came to play.”

A disaster for the Netherlands. Right up until five pitches later, when Wladimir Balentien crashed a home run to left field for two runs, which was only the start of it.

The start of a game in which neither could shake the other, not until the last ball was in play, not until Puerto Rico had raised its flag again.

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