2017 World Baseball Classic Spotlight: Title Defense Drives Dominicans

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Japan has the intriguing foreign players. Puerto Rico has the enthralling young roster. The United States has home-field advantage.

The Dominican Republic, however, is the World Baseball Classic team with the trophy.

The Dominicans open the 2017 WBC in Miami this month as the event’s defending champion, having gone 8-0 in a dominant showing in 2013. They beat their opponents by a combined score of 36-14, including a 3-0 win over Puerto Rico in the title game, and were the first team in WBC history to go undefeated through the tournament.

In part because of that dominant precedent, the Dominicans enter as the heavy favorite to win the 2017 title as well.

“It’s going to be hard to do better than we did last time,” outfielder Nelson Cruz said from Mariners spring training. “We didn’t even lose any exhibition games. We have a great challenge in front of us, but I think everybody is excited. Not only the players, but the whole country.”

In many ways, the band is back together again for the defending champs.

Former Royals manager and current Yankees first base coach Tony Pena returns to manage the Dominican Republic after leading the squad to its 2013 title. Cruz is one of 10 players returning from the 2013 team, along with Mariners teammate and reigning tournament MVP Robinson Cano.

Along with arguably the most talented roster in the tournament, that means the Dominicans are also in many ways the most well seasoned team in the event, and know best how to navigate it.

“The WBC is so short (that) as a team, you have to forget about who you are,” Cano said. “You just have to go out there and give it everything you’ve got. It’s so short and it’s must-win. You don’t have a chance to do a lot of things. You’ve just got to go out there and win games.”

While the Dominican lineup jumps off the page, it is the pitching staff Pena highlighted as the key to the team’s success. That certainly was the case last time, when they held opponents to under two runs per game on their way to the title.

“Everything in the Classic really comes down about pitching,” Pena said. “You can talk a lot about offense, but you have to remember no one is 100 percent timing wise (at this point in the spring.) A lot of hitters are way behind timingwise and you want to take advantage of that.”

The Dominicans are uniquely suited for that, with power arms like Johnny Cueto and Carlos Martinez in the rotation and Dellin Betances, Jeurys Familia and Alex Colome in the bullpen.

Beyond the individual units of the Dominican team however, their strength lies in something deeper: They know the immense pride that comes from representing their country with a championship on a world stage, and are anxious to feel it again.

“That’s something, when you retire, you look back and say, ‘We won the WBC as Dominicans,’” Cano said. “You not only represented your country in the big leagues, but (the WBC allows) you to go out there and show how much proud you are to represent your country and how good you feel to be a Dominican.”

— BA correspondent Bob Dutton contributed from Mariners camp

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