Manager: Tony Pena.
WBC History: The Dominican Republic’s run to the World Baseball Classic semifinals is helping to erase bad memories from 2009. A heavy favorite in the first-round’s Pool D that year, the Dominicans lost their opener to the Netherlands. They did rally to beat Panama, but a rematch with the Dutch produced no better result, as the Dominicans were eliminated after only three games. The Dominican Republic club fared much better in 2006. It went 3-0 in the first round, then earned a spot in the semifinals by going 2-1 with wins over Cuba and Venezuela. The Dominican Republic’s run ended there as Cuba won a rematch 3-1 thanks to Pedro Luis Lazo’s 4 2/3 innings of relief work.
How They Got Here: At 5-0, the Dominicans are the only undefeated team left in this year’s WBC. The Dominican Republic went 3-0 in a pool that included Venezuela, Spain and Puerto Rico, then knocked off Italy and the U.S. in the second round to earn a spot in the semifinals.
It’s not the 1927 Yankees or the 1975 Reds, but it’s hard to complain about a lineup that features Robinson Cano, Hanley Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes and Carlos Santana. Cano has been the club’s best hitter during the WBC, hitting .565/.565/1.000 with four doubles and two home runs in 23 at-bats. As a team. the Dominican Republic’s headed into Saturday’s game leading all remaining teams in batting average (.306) and slugging (.468). Pena is quite clearly playing to win, without having to make many sacrifices because of playing time considerations. Pena has fielded the same lineup for four of his five games, and eight of the nine hitters were still in the lineup for the fifth game. The bench of Leury Garcia, Moises Sierra, Francisco Pena and Eury Perez are largely there to pinch run, serve as defensive replacements or cheer the team on from the dugout—the four have combined for four at-bats.
The extended pitch count limits of the later rounds aren’t necessarily a good thing for Team Domincana. The Dominican Republic features the best bullpen in the tournament. The starting pitching is much shakier. Edinson Volquez is 0-0, 6.75 with just 5 1/3 innings in two starts. Wandy Rodriguez (0-0, 2.70) has pitched well in his lone start up to now, but the surprise of the Dominican staff has been Sam Deduno. The Twins righthander walked almost as many as he struck out in 15 starts with Minnesota last year, but he’s been finding the strike zone in the WBC tournament, going 1-0, 1.13 with 12 strikeouts and only two walks in 8 1/3 innings. None of the three starters strikes fear in opposing lineups, and Volquez’s erratic control could take the Dominican club out of a game quickly if Pena doesn’t use a quick hook.
Once the starter turns it over to the bullpen, the Dominican club gets much stronger. The pen features hard thrower after hard thrower. Kelvin Herrera, Juan Cedeno, Santiago Casilla, Pedro Strop, Octavio Dotel and Fernando Rodney have combined to throw 18 1/3 scoreless innings of relief work. Angel Castro, Jose Veras and Atahulapa Severino have not pitched as well in relief, but it will be a surprise to see any of the three in the remaining potential two-game sprint.
Rodney’s dominance as a closer lets Pena mix and match his other relievers for the earlier innings, with Rodney having pitched in every game of the tournament up to now for the Dominicans. If needed, there’s little doubt he’ll pitch in both the semifinals and championship game. It’s now been 28 straight appearances since Rodney allowed an earned run—a streak that stretches back to Aug. 8 of last season.
With a set lineup, a station-to-station club of sluggers (only two stolen bases in five games) and a closer who pitches in every game, Pena’s biggest in-game decisions usually revolve around when to lift his starting pitcher and move on to the tournament’s deepest bullpen. With this group of relievers, and only two games left, it’s best for Pena to make the move sooner rather than later.