Bullpen Delivers Dominican Championship
SAN FRANCISCO—As general manager for the Dominican Republic's entry in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Moises Alou knew what kind of talent pool he had at his disposal, its strengths and weaknesses.
As was the case with virtually every WBC team, the Dominican didn't get everyone that it wanted, or all of its top players. What it got, Alou believed, would be plenty good enough if certain things broke the Dominicans' way, the way they did at AT&T Park in the championship game, a 3-0 victory against Puerto Rico to win the International Baseball Federation's world championship.
"(Orioles bullpen coach) Bill Castro was asking me if we were a little short of starting pitching," Alou said. "I said, 'You know what? I've been to every single WBC and (too little starting pitching) hasn't been a problem.' Teams win with bullpens. We won every game; we kept winning so we kept getting days off, so everybody fell right into their turn in the rotation.
"We knew what we had. My only worry was if we lost one game, that we would have to play back-to-back. Tonight was our first time going back to back, and that was huge, that was clutch. We didn't have to worry about the guys who weren't here to pitch. We had enough guys that did the job. We had an awesome bullpen that took care of itself."
Some notorious bullpens in major league history have earned nicknames, but the Dominican had its own mascot—Rays closer Fernando Rodney and his plantain. Rodney came to AT&T Park with the fruit, which resembles a banana and is a staple in his homeland. Rodney said his lucky plantain helped bring the Dominican team unity and success, but with relievers like Santiago Casilla, Octavio Dotel, Kelvin Herrera and Pedro Strop pitching in front of Rodney, the Dominican didn't need much luck. They just needed a lead, and no team was able to overcome a Dominican lead in March.
"Our bullpen was the root," manager Tony Pena said. "We only played for five innings with the starting pitcher, and after that, I would turn the game over to them. And that's exactly what we did."
It worked with stunning consistency. In Pool C during the first round, the Dominican trailed Puerto Rico 2-1 after four innings but instantly tied the game in the fifth. A Hanley Ramirez homer allowed the Dominican to again quickly tie the United States in a crucial Pool 2 matchup; the U.S. scored in the bottom of the first, but Ramirez's homer tied the game in the top of the second. And in the semifinal Monday, the Netherlands took a first-inning lead, which it held until the fifth inning before giving up four runs and eventually losing 4-1.
Only Italy of all countries led the Dominican by more than one run in the entire tournament. Chris Colabello's three-run homer, capping a four-run first inning in the first game of Pool 2, was the largest deficit the Dominican faced during the entire WBC. The DR didn't come back and take the lead until the bottom of the eighth, when Italy left its top pitcher, big leaguer Jason Grilli, in the pen instead of using him with the game on the line.
The Dominican never trailed by more than one run again. And after Colabello's homer, DR pitchers tossed 44 innings and allowed just two runs—including 15 2/3 scoreless innings by the bullpen.
The Dominican offense was no juggernaut, particularly as the tournament progressed. After scoring 19 runs in three games of Pool C play at San Juan, Puerto Rico's Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the DR scored just 17 runs in its next five games, never winning by more than three runs. That allowed Rodney to have a save chance in every game, and he cashed every one in, eventually finishing with eight saves in nine games while pitching 7 1/3 scoreless innings. He struck out eight and allowed only one hit while walking three.
"When you take a look at the Dominican roster, the arms that they have, not only the starters, but in that bullpen," Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "That's a big league bullpen right there.
"And yes, we didn't score in those many innings, but the last time I checked, not too many teams scored against that team. Because when you take a guy throwing 94, 95, and then bring another guy 97, 98, I mean that's pretty hard to score against. And then as a manager, you just play for six innings, and then if you have the lead in the sixth, there's a pretty good chance that you're going to win that ballgame."
Like the bullpen, the Dominican offense went according to plan. The team's stars were on the infield, with first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, second baseman Robinson Cano and shortstops Erick Aybar, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes. Pena said the team started coming together as a unit when Ramirez volunteered to move to third base, making way for Reyes to start at short.
Ramirez struggled at the plate (5-for-22, .227) but tied for the team lead with two homers. Reyes ignited the team repeatedly from the leadoff spot, going 11-for-35 (.333) with three extra-base hits and a team-best seven runs scored. Encarnacion tied for the club lead with six RBIs, two coming in the first inning of the championship game. And Cano earned MVP honors in a 15-for-32 Classic (.469) that included four doubles and two homers. He also was walked intentionally three times in the semifinals and finals.
Aybar had to make due with being an occasional DH and pinch-hitter, but he came through with two of the biggest hits of the tournament, including perhaps the biggest—the game-winning RBI against the U.S. in a 3-1 Pool 2 victory. He also had an RBI double in the championship game that provided an insurance run.
While the Dominican games were close, they weren't always suspenseful, and neither game in San Francisco felt like it was in doubt, even with the Dutch leading for four innings. It was the March 14 U.S.-Dominican game in Miami, played in front of 34,366 at Marlins Park, that provided the high point of the entire Classic in terms of quality of play and passion.
"The Miami atmosphere was just tremendous. Dominican-U.S. was October in March," MLB's senior vice president of international baseball operations Paul Archey said.
In that contest, they had to weather 2012 Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, countering with Sam Deduno, he of the 6-5, 4.36 lifetime big league record and 15 career big league starts. When the U.S. could score only once off Deduno, the game settled into a battle of bullpens. The Americans couldn't score off the Dominicans, and Aybar's pinch-hit single off Craig Kimbrel brought home Nelson Cruz with what proved to be the game-winning run.
The U.S. went on to be eliminated by Puerto Rico, which gamely reached the final but lacked the firepower to overcome the amazing DR bullpen. Puerto Rico couldn't overcome a combined 0-for-7 performance from DH Carlos Beltran and catcher Yadier Molina in the title game, stranding eight runners, five in scoring position. First baseman Carlos Rivera, a 35-year-old Mexican League veteran, struck out three times, and manager Edwin Rodriguez got strikeouts in the eighth spot in the lineup from 40-year-old pinch-hitter Pedro Valdes and 39-year-old reserve third baseman Luis Figueroa, the last of which ended the game.
Rodney striking out the final batter was an apt ending for the Dominican, a team built around its bullpen that won a world championship.
"This moment . . . is always going to be with us," Pena said. "This is always going to be with us in our hearts because it's something totally different. When we talk about times in our careers as a professional baseball player in the U.S., in our game, this goes beyond all of that, when you go out and represent your country."