Sunday, March 12, 2017

World Baseball Classic - Game 2 - Dominican Republic vs. USA

Dominican Republic vs. USA.  Final Score: 7 to 5 - Dominican Republic Wins.
The Game
 The game had a “same, but different” feel from the start.  Team USA playing another Latina American team, this type the more heavily favored champion from the 2013 WBC, the Dominican Republic.  It was billed as a rematch from four years ago, when the Dominican Republic defeated Team USA to advance to the finals of Round 2 play.  
This time Team USA was playing as the visiting team, batting at the top of the inning.  And it felt they were the visiting team.  The crowd, much, much larger than the day before when the U.S. beat Colombia, was decisively dominated by fans of the DR Team.  At least one fellow Team USA fan gave an estimate of three to one, DR vs. USA fans in attendance.  I don’t doubt his estimate at all.  
And as with the Colombian fas, the DR fans were loud and raucous, chatting and playing drums and horns from the get-go.  Even more so.  As the game started, they cheered every out, every strike, as if it were happening in the ninth inning of a World Series game.  
This game started slowly.  After two pitches, the DR pitcher paused as the pitching coach and someone that must have been a trainer came out to the mound.  I saw the trainer checking the pitcher’s foot.  Just as I started wondering if he had pulled something with his first pitch, they brought groundskeepers out to rake the mound for him, particularly the spot where he was landing at the end of his motion.  
As with the game against Colombia, Team USA got some stellar starting pitching.  Marcus Stroman allowed only 3 hits scattered over 4 and 2/3 innings.  There were moments where it looked like he was being frustrated over his pitches not hitting the zone the way he wanted them, or maybe that he wasn’t getting the calls he was expected, but they were few and he worked through them to get DR side out without allowing a run to cross the plate.  Team USA hitters did their jobs, putting balls in play and, aided by a couple of DR fielding errors in the outfield, added one or two runs per inning over a three inning span.  By the time Stroman reached his pitch limit and was forced to leave, Team USA added two more runs to build what I thought was a comfortable 5-0 lead.  
That proved to be wrong.  The comeback started in the bottom of the 6th, with the first homer I’ve seen hit this tournament off of Tanner Roark.  This gave the pro-DR crowd a huge burst of adrenalin.  There roar of approval was so loud it hurt my ears and left them ringing.  It got louder as Roark allowed another run before the inning was over.  Suddenly we had a game again.  
The DR relievers were up to the task, silencing the previously productive USA bats.  The DR hitters were swinging with added life, often ahead in the counts and having men on base before USA pitching could register an out.  Roark left after giving up another run in the 7th.  USA was able to escape that inning, with their lead shaved to two runs at 5 to 3.
Andrew Miller, whose relief work for Cleveland last year helped the Indians reach their first World Series in decades, came on in the 8th to stop the DR rally.  What he did instead was give up two home runs, one with men on base, to Starling Marte whose error earlier in the game allowed the U.S. to their first two runs.  By the end of the inning, the DR, and their insanely delirious fans were up 7 to 5.  
The US batters went down one-two-three in the top of the 9th to end the game that way.  
The Experience
This game was as painful to experience as it was exciting to watch.  
First, there was the heartbreak of seeing the team build what I thought was a commanding lead on the back of quality pitching and timely hitting, only to see it blasted to pieces over the course of three successive innings  What made it especially bad was the feeling that, for whatever reason, the DR batters were just waiting for Stroman to leave so they could get to the relievers.  It makes even more bewildering when you look at the bull pen Team USA sports and see that it’s filled with very high quality arms, pitchers that are used to coming in and saving games and squashing rallies during the regular season.  
So far, the two starters for Team USA threw 8 2/3 innings, allowing on 3 hits and no runs to opposing batters.  Post that line on any box score and you’d lead people to believe that your team was dominating play.  
Second it was physically painful when the DR. heavy crowd got into it again once their team started their comeback.  I mean this quite literally when I say, My…  Ears…  Hurt.  More than once I used my fingers to plug them to stop the pain.  I once saw Metallica perform live in concert at the Great Western Forum back in the day.  Yesterday, when the DR drove in their winning runs, it was louder.  
Finally, there is a sadness within me stemming from this loss.  After the game, I spoke to  a number of the Team USA fans walking back to our hotel.  There was the usual selection of questions we were asking each other.  Why did Leyland, the manager for Team USA, send Roark out again in the 7th when he so clearly struggled in the 6th?  Where were “all the stars,” referring to the superstar players from the MLB that opted to not try for the WBC?  And also, amongst those fans still looking forward, what does Team USA need to do to go forward into the 2nd Round?  
I had a question of my own, one that came out of a talk from three of us standing by the front desk before going up to our rooms.  It was a thought that started gnawing at me as I sat amongst the fans from Colombia and the Dominican Republic, and remembered watching Japanese baseball with those fans as well.  One that seemed to connect to the criticism being directed about the MLB regarding its attitude toward the World Baseball Classic, one where they support it in the media, but seem to not encouraging the players, or perhaps even dissuading them to a degree through playing limitations, to participate.  
Could it be, I asked, that America, the country that invented the game, is being eclipsed in its passion for the sport by other countries, like the Dominican Republic and Japan? 
No one I asked the question gave an outright, “no.”  They all considered it.  Some conceded that it might be true.  “Where were the US fans?” one asked me in reply, pointing to the overwhelming support for the DR that showed up.  One other conceded that, “There are so many other things, other sports, to choose from here,” and that for a country like the DR, baseball might be all they have, so they put everything they have into it.  
Maybe.  I’m willing to bet they have soccer, too. 
About Team USA’s chances, it comes down to this.  If the Dominican Republic beats Colombia today (they’re leading 3 to 1 in the top of the fifth as I write this), and USA beats Canada, the the DR and the USA both advance to the 2nd Round as the top two teams from their pool.  That’s the most straightforward way for the US to go to San Diego to play.  
If Colombia wins over the DR, and Canada beats the US, then the Dominican Republic and Colombia go to the next round.  That’s the most straightforward way for Team USA to be eliminated.  
All the other combinations, with Team USA at either 2-1 or 1-2, lead to tiebreakers based on defense, the number of runs allowed per inning, then the number of earned runs allowed per inning, amongst the teams vying for the spot, with a possible tie-breaker game taking place on Monday, 3/13.  
Clearly, the best thing Team USA can do for itself is win against Canada tonight.  

PS: Colombia just scored in the bottom of the 6th, making the score 3-2, DR.


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