After Surprising Venezuela Loss, the Dominican Republic Takes a Breath and Finds Its Form

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

MIAMI – It’s unlikely that, in the history of Christopher Columbus High School baseball, it’s ever hosted so many superstars. The Catholic all-boys prep school, located amidst the sprawl of southwest Miami not far from the airport and which counts Jon Jay and White Sox manager Pedro Grifol among its notable alumni, has won a pair of state championships and was ranked No. 1 in the country back in 2009. But on Sunday afternoon, its field and gym were the practice space of choice for the Dominican Republic’s World Baseball Classic squad, and its enviable, mind-boggling collection of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers — baseball’s answer to the Dream Team.

At least, that was the narrative coming into the group stage. The mighty Dominican Republic and its titanic lineup, hard-throwing rotation, and deep bullpen was favored even in the Pool of Death with Puerto Rico and Venezuela. But that was before the Dominicans turned in a listless, uneven effort against Venezuela on Saturday night, stranding runners and squandering opportunities and looking nothing like the Home Run Derby Globetrotters you were hoping for.

The afternoon after that loss to Venezuela, the Dominican team assembled at Christopher Columbus High for an off-day practice — an optional one, said manager Rodney Linares, but one that was fully attended nonetheless. There, he spoke to his players, and they spoke to each other. The message? Be calm. Stay cool. Put the nerves and the frustration of Saturday night behind you. As Linares put it, “Try to control the situation, and don’t let the situation control us.”

The Dominican Republic has multiple All-Stars, last year’s AL Rookie of the Year and the 2022 World Series (and ALCS) MVP in its regular lineup. Its bench would have ironclad starting roles on most if not all of the other WBC squads. The rotation is fronted by a Cy Young winner. Virtually every hitter on the roster has been a top prospect at some point in his career if not the top prospect. If you were building a super-team from scratch, you’d be hard-pressed to beat the names that general manager Nelson Cruz pulled together. Yet here they were, one loss away from potential elimination and still to play Puerto Rico, with no margin for error and the very real possibility of coming up woefully short of those Dream Team expectations.

“When you speak about failure, yes, to me and for all of us, it would be a failure not making it to the final,” Linares said on Monday.

That’s the unfortunate reality of being the favorite, and more so the case when you’ve built baseball’s version of the Galacticos. Thankfully for Linares and company, the Dominican Republic relieved some of that pressure by beating Nicaragua, 6–1, with homers from Padres teammates Manny Machado and Juan Soto and an excellent outing by Cristian Javier. In control from the first pitch, whatever nerves afflicted the team against Venezuela were nowhere to be found on Monday, as the Dominicans danced and celebrated with regularity and aplomb.

“All victories taste good, right?” Linares said in his packed postgame press conference. “No one is ready to lose, and we were in a good mood.”

As far as matchups go, this one was far from fair. Opposite Javier, Nicaragua started 34-year-old JC Ramírez, the oft-traveled middle reliever who last appeared in a major league game in 2019. The Nicaraguan lineup, meanwhile, featured exactly two players with MLB experience: former Royals infielder Cheslor Cuthbert (last big league plate appearance: 2020) and ex-Reds shortstop Alex Blandino (not seen in the majors since 2021). Contrast that to the first four hitters who stepped in for Team DR: Soto, Julio Rodríguez, Machado, and Rafael Devers. That’s a combined 21.4 WAR in 2022 and, in Rodríguez, Machado and Devers, some $800 million in long-term contracts. (Soto will likely add nearly half a billion to that total if and when he signs his next big contract.) “There are no small opponents,” Linares said afterward, graciously complimenting a feisty yet overmatched Nicaragua team. But this was a drag race between a horse-drawn buggy and a Maserati, and that was obvious from the jump, with Soto — batting leadoff after hitting second behind Rodríguez against Venezuela — ripping a hard single to open the game, then scoring two batters later on a bullet double off the bat of Devers.

Though the score stayed close through the next few innings, that was more thanks to the vagaries of batted ball luck than anything else. Twice, Machado lifted long and loud fly balls off Ramírez deep into the outfield that looked like easy homers off the bat. The first, with one on and one out in the first, went 404 feet at 107 mph, only to die on the track in left-center; the second clocked in at 104.2 mph and 390 feet in the third, again with a runner on and one out, but was snagged by Nicaragua’s Juan Montes in right-center. Machado wasn’t alone in just missing; Devers, Wander Franco, Francisco Mejía and Willy Adames all scalded balls at 95 mph or better that went into the scorebook as outs. But he was probably the only Dominican player to get razzed by his manager for it, with Linares jokingly telling his third baseman to hit the gym after his second would-be homer couldn’t find the seats.

Machado’s power wasn’t necessarily needed; the Dominican Republic tacked on a run in the third on a bloop RBI single from Eloy Jiménez, then broke the game open with two runs in the fourth on RBI hits from Mejía and Rodríguez, which brought players hopping out of the dugout and sent the largely Dominican crowd into a frenzy. But both he and Soto brought everyone to their feet with solo blasts. The latter walloped a hanging slider from reliever Junior Tellez in the top of the sixth deep into the stands in right; Machado followed an inning later, cranking a Joaquin Acuña fastball the opposite way at 104.1 mph. With cheers crashing around them, each rounded the bases, happily joined the party at home plate, then stepped into the dugout and donned the team’s home run prop of choice: the presidential sash, or nona, of the Dominican Republic.

“At the end of the day, we’re ambassadors, so why not celebrate like ambassadors?” Soto said afterward when asked about the team’s sartorial celebration. The brainchild of Cruz, it would have made an appearance on Saturday, had the Dominican Republic managed to hit a homer off Venezuela; they didn’t. Against Nicaragua, it was paraded around twice.

Both Soto and Machado drew curtain calls from the 32,000 Dominican Republic fans in attendance, and while that may feel like a bit much given that the opponent, it reflected both the excitement and the expectations that surround this squad. This was the game that the Dominican Republic both needed and was supposed to have: tons of offense, shutdown pitching — Javier allowed just two hits and a walk over four scoreless frames, striking out four — and a much lighter mood. Even the struggles of veteran reliever César Valdez late in the game couldn’t dampen the good vibes; as he labored to throw strikes, he still heard cries of “el Caballo de Licey” — the stallion of Licey — from the crowd.

The ease of Monday’s win aside, the Dominican Republic still has to take its next two games to advance, and that includes the Pool D finale against Puerto Rico on Wednesday night. Linares, Machado, Soto, and Puerto Rico manager Yadier Molina dropped their best cliches about one game at a time when asked about looking forward to Wednesday, but at this point, everyone else is, and with good reason. For both sides, it’ll be win or go home.

Pool D Monday Notes

  • Monday night’s game between Puerto Rico and Israel was just as one-sided as the Dominican Republic’s win over Nicaragua but just a tad more dramatic, what with the whole perfect game mercy rule thing. Led by Jose De Leon, four Puerto Rican pitchers retired all 24 Israel batters faced — and only 24, because Puerto Rico ended the game in the eighth by scoring its 10th run of the night, automatically invoking the WBC’s mercy rule. Perfect game or not (and officially it’s not), it sets up Wednesday’s “two teams enter one team leave” finale, assuming the Dominicans beat Israel on Tuesday night.
  • Speaking of Wednesday: at least on the mound, the matchup favors the Dominicans, with Johnny Cueto scheduled to take the mound against Puerto Rico. He’ll face Dominic Hamel, a Mets prospect who two years ago was starting for Dallas Baptist University in the Mountain Valley Conference. Linares also commands a deeper bullpen — one built out of pitchers experienced in getting four to six outs at a time.
  • Linares made a number of switches and changes for Monday’s game against Nicaragua: along with batting Soto leadoff, he started Jiménez over Teoscar Hernández in right and Adames in place of Jeremy Peña at short and opted for Mejía instead of Gary Sanchez behind the plate. The reasoning? “The changes are based on analytics,” the DR manager said without elaborating, adding that, where he comes from — he’s Kevin Cash’s new bench coach in Tampa and has been with the Rays since 2018 — “we use analytics a lot.”
  • Some of Linares’ moves, though, are motivated by the playing time restrictions placed on his roster. Soto, for example, won’t start against Israel, as the Padres don’t want him playing on back-to-back days. Likewise with his relievers, whom he has to manage carefully given their pitch count limits. In that regard, he benefited from being able to use his lower-leverage bullpen arms — Diego Castillo, Rafael Montero, Valdez, and Luis García — to close out Nicaragua. Assuming he doesn’t need to go deep into the well against Israel, he should have everyone he needs available for Wednesday.

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1 year ago

After Surprising Venezuela loss, the Dominican Republic Takes a Breath and Finds its Form

I got all the way down to the bottom of the article still wondering who Venezuela lost to.

It took me a trip to the standings to figure it out.

Last edited 1 year ago by