José De León Makes WBC History and Perfect Memories for Puerto Rico

Jose De Leon
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Monday night was special for Team Rubio. By falling to Venezuela on Sunday night, Puerto Rico had put themselves in a position with little room for error and faced a win-or go home scenario against the Dominican Republic on Wednesday night. Taking on Israel in its third game of Pool D play and with limited pitching depth, the team needed a nails performance from starter José De León. He didn’t disappoint, delivering for his people and providing a historic WBC performance. In a mercy rule win, Puerto Rico combined for eight perfect innings led by De León, who went 17 up and 17 down with 10 strikeouts.

After a top of the first inning that was over before you could blink, Team Rubio immediately got it going offensively. As Yonder Alonso said on the broadcast, “early and often” was the goal for this lineup after Puerto Rico almost rallied back from a big deficit against Venezuela the night before, bringing the tying run to the plate in the eighth inning after trailing 7–0 in the second. To carry that energy over, the top of Puerto Rico’s lineup had to set the table. Francisco Lindor and Enrique Hernández both made quick outs, but then chaos ensued, starting with a four-pitch walk by MJ Melendez. Emmanuel Rivera then scorched a ground ball at 106.1 mph into left field, setting up a run scoring opportunity for Javier Báez.

Báez had struggled mightily in the previous two games. He committed the error on Jose Altuve’s game-opening groundball, kick-starting Venezuela’s three-run first inning, and had spent his at-bats chasing breaking ball after breaking ball way out of the zone. Hitting fifth in the lineup, Báez was going to be relied on as a run creator. After taking a slider outside to start the at-bat, he did just that, sending a blistering line drive down the left field line that just landed fair to drive in Melendez and Rivera and give Puerto Rico a 2–0 lead:

Right after that double, we got a taste of why Báez is called El Mago — The Magician — when he swiped third base on a 1–0 count with Eddie Rosario at the plate. Nobody makes an art form out of the swim slide better than Báez. Sit back and appreciate the near impossible:

Nobody knows how he does it, but that’s why Báez has his nickname. Last WBC, we got him applying a sensational no-look tag on the heels of Yadier Molina’s perfect throw to nail Nelson Cruz attempting to swipe second; this year, we have another beautiful swim slide. Rosario didn’t let this it to waste, knocking in Báez with a 405-foot double off the base of the center field wall to give Puerto Rico a 3–0 lead.

That was more than enough for De León. In the top of the second, he induced four swinging strikes on his sinker, including three against Alex Dickerson. Israel’s hitters couldn’t handle the pitch all night: de León threw 44 sinkers in total and earned 15 called strikes and whiffs on it. As he churned through the lineup the first time through the order, he leaned on that sinker to do everything for him, both setting up and finishing off hitters with it. After the game, he credited Martín Maldonado’s pitch calling, noting that he didn’t shake off the veteran once the entire game. Maldonado had a plan to attack hitters with the sinker the first time through the order if De León could keep executing the pitch. And as the game progressed, he switched to more and more changeups and sliders to keep Israel’s hitters on their toes. All night, De León executed whatever Maldonado threw down for him.

In the bottom of the second, Hernández added to the onslaught with a double to score an additional two runs with no outs. Two batters later, Rivera punched a triple into the right-center gap to make it 6–0. The Diamondbacks third baseman has been solid so far as Puerto Rico’s unexpected cleanup hitter and at the hot corner. In the weeks leading up to the tournament, the expectation was that Jose Miranda and Carlos Correa would fill out Puerto Rico’s infield alongside Lindor and Báez. But with both Twins hitters bowing out of the tournament, Rivera was inserted into the starting lineup with the task of following the team’s three best hitters. So far, he has four hits in 11 at-bats with four RBI and two runs scored to go along with clean defense. Given a challenging opportunity, he has made the very most of it.

De León’s first big challenge came in the fourth, with the top of Israel’s lineup coming up a second time, led by their best hitters in Joc Pederson, Zack Gelof, and Matt Mervis. But he needed only eight pitches to breeze by them. Against Pederson, he switched up his sequencing and threw three consecutive changeups, with the third yielding a routine groundball to Neftali Soto at first. De León then caught Gelof trying to ambush a sinker and fooled him with the only cutter he threw all night. Looking to crush a high pitch, Mervis swung at two sinkers in the top third of the strike zone, then took a third that ran away and off the plate. That set him up perfectly for the changeup, and while Maldonado helped de León with a perfect frame of a pitch that may have been slightly off the low and outside corner, either way, it was perfectly executed and earned De León a called third strike from home plate umpire Ron Kulpa.

The top of fifth was just as easy as the previous inning, with De León needing just seven pitches to complete it. His offense didn’t go down as easily: Baéz led off the bottom half of the frame with a double; Joey Wagman entered the game in relief and intentionally walked Vimael Machín to get the favorable matchup against Maldonado, but he couldn’t find the zone with his curveball and ended up walking the veteran catcher as well, setting up a bases-loaded opportunity for Lindor. The Mets shortstop fell behind 0–2 but got a hanging curveball in his sweet spot and smacked it off the wall in right-center field, just missing a grand slam:

Lindor’s triple cleared the bases, and as he cruised into third base, he rubbed his luxurious blonde hair while his teammates and fans basked in the moment.

Heading into the sixth up 9–0, de León was still under the WBC’s first-round maximum of 65 pitches, allowing him to return to the mound and continue his perfect game bid. He struck out both Spencer Horwitz and Ty Kelly looking before exiting, one pitch shy of the limit and the owner of the longest perfect game bid by a starter in WBC history. He was serenaded by a roaring Puerto Rican crowd as he exited the game:

As a former top prospect who has battled countless injuries, De León is still looking to find his place in MLB; maybe this outing will help him make the Twins, with whom he signed a minor league deal back in December and joined earlier this spring as a non-roster invitee. But even it doesn’t, he will have a life-long memory that not only means the world to him, but also to a tiny little island whose people eat, sleep, and breathe baseball. His quote after the game says it all:

“I’ve been through so many obstacles in my career, so many things. And to have a moment like this in front of my family, my people, wearing Puerto Rico across my chest makes it a hundred times more special. I’m still walking on cloud nine right now, so it’s a moment I’ll remember forever.”

After De León, Molina went with Yacksel Ríos to close the sixth, Edwin Díaz for the seventh, and Duane Underwood Jr. for the eighth and final inning. Those three pitchers were perfect as well and got one last bit of support from the offense, who closed out the 10–0 win with Hernandez’s single in the bottom of the eighth that scored Maldonado and invoked the mercy rule. It was the second no-hitter in WBC history — the first belongs to Shairon Martis, who threw it for the Netherlands in 2006 — and the only one in which zero runners reached base. And to many Puerto Ricans, myself included, this game means more than you can imagine. That performance by De León and the rest of the team will be spoken about in the Puerto Rican community for as long as baseball is played.

The Pool of Death has been as exciting as advertised so far. Venezuela will look to secure their spot at the top of the pool on Tuesday against Nicaragua; if they win and the Dominican Republic defeats Israel later that night, we will have an incredible rivalry matchup set for Wednesday between the DR and PR. The winner will move on, and the loser will go home. Buckle up, folks; we may have just seen a walk-off perfect game, but we’re just getting to the most thrilling part of the tournament.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Roger McDowell Hot Foot
1 year ago

I assume I’m not the only one who spent the 8th inning hoping like hell that Puerto Rico wouldn’t score, and I’m honestly surprised that the hitters went ahead and ended it before they could get a shot at the official perfecto. Stupid place to invoke the mercy rule and I wish there were an exception written in, or at least that the managers and the umps were allowed to use their discretion to continue play.