From the WBC Gauntlet, Unlikely Bright Spots Emerge for Nicaragua

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

MIAMI – The assignment facing Nicaragua’s Duque Hebbert was as nerve-wracking as he could imagine. As the 21-year-old right-hander warmed up before the top of the ninth inning of Monday’s Pool D game between Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, Juan Soto waited, watching from the on-deck circle. Up after him: 2022 AL Rookie of the Year and five-tool phenom Julio Rodríguez. Should he manage to survive both of those elite hitters, he would have to contend with six-time All-Star Manny Machado, who had homered in his last at-bat and come a combined three or four feet short of going deep twice more.

Against that terrifying trio stood Hebbert, 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, the youngest and last man picked for a Nicaragua squad that qualified for its first-ever WBC and, as its reward, drew a spot in the tournament’s Pool of Death alongside the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. Hebbert and his teammates came into the day with two losses in two group stage games so far; down 6–1 against the DR, that would soon become three in three. Then again, no one had expected Nicaragua to win a game in this pool, much less advance. They were in Miami with the goal of growing and getting better and putting up a respectable fight against rosters full of legends and superstars. So as Hebbert finished his warm-up throws and Soto stepped in, the task in front of him was simple yet immense: end the day on a positive note for Pool D’s resident underdogs by retiring three of the best hitters in the entire world.

Nineteen pitches, four batters and three eye-opening swinging strikeouts later, Hebbert had done more than that, going from anonymous Nicaraguan reliever to baseball’s newest viral sensation. He set Soto down with three straight strikes, the last a diving changeup that he swung right over; the future Hall of Famer flashed a smile back at the mound as he walked out of the box. Rodríguez fared no better, fouling off a 90 mph fastball and that devilish changeup before eventually whiffing on a slider down and away. Machado, too, waved through a slider and was down 0–2, only to smash a double to left, bringing up Rafael Devers. No sweat for Hebbert, who fell behind one of the majors’ top sluggers 3–1, got him to foul off two pitches, then dispatched him with — what else — a changeup to finish the inning.

“That was really emotional for me, one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my whole career,” said Nicaragua second baseman Alex Blandino the next afternoon. “A 21-year-old pitcher struck out literally a billion dollars worth of hitters.”

It was such an impressive performance that, before his day was over, the soft-spoken young Miskito man from the small seaside city of Puerto Cabezas, who spent last season pitching in Nicaragua’s professional winter league, had a contract offer in hand from Detroit, courtesy of team staffer and Tigers scout Luis Molina. (He told reporters on Tuesday morning that he had yet to sign officially.) In the span of a single inning, Hebbert had broken into the big leagues and given Nicaragua its signature moment on the international stage.

“It’s like a fairy tale,” said Nicaragua’s manager, Sandor Guido, on the morning after Hebbert became the WBC’s unlikeliest household name. “Now the whole world is talking about Duque.”

Hebbert’s star turn didn’t turn the tournament around for Nicaragua, which dropped its fourth and final game on Tuesday, 4–1, to Pool D champ Venezuela. But it did highlight what makes the WBC both unique and special: an opportunity for talent from underrepresented, overlooked or developing baseball countries to shine through. For Nicaragua in particular, this week represented an opportunity to show the rest of the world that it legitimately belongs here — something every manager in the pool acknowledged without prompting and with deep appreciation. And in return, the Nicaraguans got to see how the sport’s best perform, how they stack up, and what needs to happen next for them to become mainstays in the WBC. “Having been in this tournament, we know there’s still a bit left to get to the level we want to be at,” Guido said after the loss to the Dominican Republic on Monday. “Our first World Baseball Classic has taught us a lot about what we have to work on and improve.”

Few teams got an acid bath as strong as the one Nicaragua was dunked in. Simply to get here, they had to finish in the top two of a six-team double-elimination qualifying tournament that took place last September and October in Panama, featuring the host nation as well as Brazil, Argentina, Pakistan, and New Zealand. To make things even tougher on themselves, they went out and dropped their opener against Brazil. But they quickly righted things, mercy ruling Pakistan, narrowly beating Argentina, and then downing Brazil in a winner-take-all rematch for second place (Panama won that tourney and went to Pool A in Taiwan but failed to advance). Not that things got any easier from there: Pool D and its three titans, plus an experienced Team Israel.

Baseball isn’t foreign to Nicaragua, the birthplace of Dennis Martinez, Marvin Benard, and Vicente Padilla, among two dozen other major leaguers past and present. The country’s winter league — the five-team Liga Beisbol Profesional Nacional, or LBPN — was founded in 2004 and runs from November to December for 30 games plus playoffs every year. Nicaragua finished second at the IBAF World Cup, the WBC’s precursor, five times and won the bronze medal at the most recent Pan American Games, held in Peru in 2019, albeit against rosters largely devoid of MLB players. Per the WBSC’s rankings, Nicaragua sits 17th in the world, right behind Italy and ahead of fellow tournament qualifiers Great Britain (22) and China (30). No one will mistake them for the Dominican Republic, but this isn’t a country sending retired players in their 40s and part-time semi-pro jobbers to the slaughter.

Unfortunately for Nicaragua, there’s still a chasm between the baseball world they’ve known and the veritable All-Star teams they faced in Miami with sellout crowds roaring at them. The Dominican Republic had its pick of MLB in building its roster. By comparison, the number of active major leaguers playing for Nicaragua is a scant two: Yankees reliever Jonathan Loáisiga and veteran swingman Erasmo Ramírez. Blandino and first baseman Cheslor Cuthbert had brief big league careers, and a handful of younger players are in the minors, led by righty Carlos Rodriguez, who is 21st on our 2023 Brewers list as a 40 Future Value prospect. (Other notable names include Steven Leyton, a Reds minor leaguer, and Rodney Theophile, a hard-thrower in the Nationals’ system.) Most of the team, though, toils away in the LBPN. That includes Hebbert, who has never pitched professionally outside of Nicaragua and works in relief for Tren del Norte in the city of Esteli; in 28.2 innings last year, he posted a 4.71 ERA with 24 strikeouts and 17 walks.

Understandably, that kind of performance against a level of competition well below Triple-A won’t draw much attention from most professional teams or scouts (though it did win Hebbert Rookie of the Year honors). Hence the importance of the World Baseball Classic for a team like Nicaragua: the more opportunities for its players to shine on national television against the best players in the world, the more likely that its players will find new homes in tougher leagues around the world. “God willing people will scout our players so that they’ll be able to play in places like Venezuela and Mexico and Japan, because that will benefit us,” Guido said.

So too did taking hacks against established major league starters with plus stuff like Cristian Javier and Marcus Stroman, or having to figure out how to retire Soto and Jose Altuve and Francisco Lindor. “It’s a great feeling when you’ve got to face a guy throwing 100 mph with movement,” said backup outfielder Dwight Britton, who spent time in the Mariners’ farm system as a teenager; now 35 years old, he’s been a mainstay on the national team for the last decade. “We don’t see that a lot back home. You find one or two guys who throw like that.”

Making the best out of the disadvantages is part and parcel of the WBC experience for smaller countries. But with the Nicaraguans, it’s sincere — a genuine appreciation for getting to be here, even if they did go 0–4 and, by virtue of finishing last in the pool, missed out on automatically qualifying for the 2027 tournament. Again and again, Guido and his players talked about how eager they were to test themselves against the best, and how exciting it was to face them and to get to be a part of this event. For most of the Nicaraguans, this week marked the first time they’d played in a big league stadium, something most of them will likely never do again, and they got to do so in front of thousands of Nicaraguan fans waving their flag and screaming with joy with every hit. “I told our guys, this is our Major League Baseball,” Britton said.

What’s next for Nicaragua, beyond having to do the qualification tournament dance again in three years’ time, is growing the game at home to the point where making it to the WBC is the routine and not the exception. That will involve not just the current crop of Nicaraguans continuing to develop, but also more investment in and more eyeballs on those to come. “There are a lot of Nicaraguan minor leaguers right now, and that’s good to see,” Rodriguez said. “It means we’re headed in the right direction.” Said Blandino: “I hope it shows any young player from Nicaragua that they can do this as well. We’re on the up and up.”

That includes Hebbert, who still seemed in shock on Tuesday over his sudden stardom. After Monday’s game, he called his mother and his grandmother, neither of whom had been able to watch him pitch, and cried on the phone as they told him how proud they were. He tracked down Soto for a photo together, with the Padres outfielder telling him, “Good job, keep working hard.” Then he jumped on Instagram, where Dominican fans had found his profile (containing all of one post, made on Monday afternoon) and were filling his comments with fire emojis and congratulations for striking out their heroes. “Maybe when I get a free moment, I’ll respond to all of them,” he said. And he watched the clips of himself striking out Soto and Rodríguez and Devers, over and over, spending so much of the night doing so that, he confessed, he’d barely slept. One inning at the World Baseball Classic changed Hebbert’s life. It could just change the course of Nicaraguan baseball, too.

Pool D Monday Notes

  • With that win over Nicaragua, Venezuela moved to 3–0 in group play and, more importantly, clinched first place in Pool D. One game is left on their schedule — an afternoon tilt with Israel — but there will be no stakes for that one except for pride and avoiding injuries. All that’s left for Venezuela beyond that is scoreboard watching to see which team will finish as the Pool C runner-up and be their opponent for Friday night’s quarterfinal matchup in Miami.
  • The Dominican Republic kept up its end of the deal, beating Israel 10–0 in Tuesday’s nightcap and guaranteeing that Wednesday night’s game against Puerto Rico will decide the Pool D runner-up, who will face the Pool C winner on Saturday night, also in Miami. Johnny Cueto will start opposite Mets prospect Dominic Hamel in the Caribbean Super Bowl. (El Bol Super?)
  • Israel is having a rough go in Pool D, first being on the wrong end of Puerto Rico’s combined perfect game, then getting mercy ruled for a second straight night while collecting a single hit off DR pitching. The six-year gap between this WBC and the last one created a ton of roster turnover from the team that shocked Cuba, the Netherlands and South Korea in 2017, but it’s a disappointing result nonetheless for a roster with Joc Pederson, Dean Kremer, Matt Mervis, Zack Gelof, and a number of other major league-caliber players. Such is life in the Pool of Death.
  • The one bright spot for Israel: 19-year-old Jacob Steinmetz, a 2021 Diamondbacks draft pick who had never pitched above Rookie ball but got the start Tuesday and threw 1.2 innings, striking out three, including Machado and Jeremy Peña swinging. Steinmetz is also the first practicing Orthodox Jew to be drafted by an MLB team. Congratulations to him on having a very cool story to tell at his next family gathering.
  • For as much as Puerto Rican and Dominican fans have dominated attendance in Miami — Tuesday night’s announced crowd was 33,307, with 33,300 of them seemingly wearing a Dominican jersey, shirt or flag — Venezuela has brought out tons of fans as well. Over 21,000 people showed up for a noon game against Nicaragua, the great majority decked in red, blue and yellow, and the Vinotinto faithful were a sizable and loud presence against PR and the DR. Given south Florida’s sizable Venezuelan immigrant and expat community, Friday’s quarterfinal game will for all intents and purposes be played in Caracas.
  • Eduardo Rodriguez made his first start of the WBC, and though he didn’t pitch well, allowing seven loud hits in two-plus innings, manager Omar Lopez wants him back. Only one problem: the Tigers won’t let him pitch again in the tournament. In a similar vein, Detroit reportedly asked Lopez to limit Miguel Cabrera’s playing time going forward; the 39-year-old has started two of the three games here so far. The Tigers later said they hadn’t asked for any restrictions on Cabrera, but the push and pull between MLB team needs and national team desires has been a persistent issue in Miami and other pools.

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South Detroitmember
11 months ago

Duque Hebbert is a fun story! The context you provided on the Nicaraguan team was a great read as well. Hopefully this tournament keeps on growing

11 months ago
Reply to  South Detroit

The real El Duque