Puerto Rico Downs Dominican Republic in Thriller, But Díaz’s Injury Sours the Night

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

MIAMI – You could hear the airhorns blocks away from LoanDepot Park, and the music, too: salsa, bachata, reggaeton, merengue — all blasting at artillery strike volume, echoing down the nearby residential streets lined with two-story pastel-colored houses and under the soft gray skies of a rainy Wednesday in south Florida. Small throngs of fans — women with their hair colored electric blue and cherry red, men with platinum blond dye jobs to mimic the stars of Team Rubio — became bigger clusters, all pooling around the stadium, taking over adjacent parking lots for impromptu tailgates. Everyone’s back bore the name of an icon of Caribbean baseball: CLEMENTE, GUERRERO, MARTINEZ, MACHADO, BÁEZ, SOTO, LINDOR. Tens of thousands of fans, some of whom had paid up to $400 per ticket on the secondary market just to get in the door, were here for the main event of Pool D in this World Baseball Classic: the win-or-go-home group stage finale between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

A clarification, first: It’s not accurate to call this event the World Baseball Classic — not here, at least, in Miami, where Latin American teams made up 80% of the pool’s members. (Team Israel probably picked up plenty of excellent Spanish slang in its week-long stay.) No, this was el Mundial, because all week, this hasn’t been a baseball tournament; it’s been a beisbol tournament. Every day featured a good-sized chunk of this city’s large Dominican and Puerto Rican populations setting up shop at the park and spending close to a dozen hours partying and dancing and playing panderetas and güiros and tamboras and those ubiquitous horns. Throughout the week, the west plaza of LoanDepot Park has functioned as a fanfest space, complete with a DJ on a giant stage and access to a team store stocked full of PR and DR shirts and a beer vendor seemingly every 10 feet. Long before each game every day and well past the final out each night, this is where Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Venezuelan fans (and a handful of Nicaraguans, supporting their country that had qualified for the WBC for the first time) met, laughed, crushed 20-ounce Heineken and Stella Artois cans, and celebrated together. This was their tournament, and Wednesday night’s heavyweight prize fight between Pool D’s superpowers was as close as they could get to their own Super Bowl.

“What does this game mean? Everything,” said Dominican Republic manager Rodney Linares in his pregame press conference. “It means everything.”

“This game is going to be talked about for the next 30 years, even when I’m no longer here,” said Puerto Rico shortstop Francisco Lindor, so confident that the reality of the night would match the hype that he made that claim hours before first pitch. “My people, we’re going to have fun today.”

He was right, or at least he was until the very end. Over nine innings of exhilarating, postseason-level play, Puerto Rico scraped together enough runs and survived a bullpen game against a loaded Dominican lineup to claim a 5–2 victory and move on to the second round. But as the team burst from its dugout after Edwin Díaz’s game-ending strikeout of Teoscar Hernández, everything suddenly came to a sickening halt when Díaz went down in a heap near the mound, clutching his right knee. The Mets closer had to be helped off the field, first by his teammates and then with a wheelchair, unable to put any weight on his leg, bringing what had been a night and week of fun and excitement to a sour, bitter end.

“Quiet,” is how a somber Enrique Hernández described the winning clubhouse in his postgame press conference. “It didn’t feel in there like we just beat the Dominican Republic.”

It was a wretched moment that overshadowed what was the best game of the week, and maybe the tournament. With a sellout crowd of 36,025 people that never stopped cheering no matter what happened — hit or strikeout, run or double play — Wednesday night was the epitome of what World Baseball Classic games can and should be: World Series-level excitement and intensity. And then on the flip side came the fear that every MLB team feels when it sends its players off to a tournament that it can’t control, though it’s worth noting that Díaz hurt himself not by pitching but simply by jumping up and down with his teammates.

It made for a bizarre and occasionally tense scene after the game. While the music from the fanfest blared so loud that it thrummed through the walls of the media room and rattled the windows, an ashen-faced Yadier Molina was blunt in his assessment of Díaz’s injury: “It sucks.” Though the Puerto Rico manager had no update to give on Díaz’s status other than that he would undergo tests, it was clear that whatever joy he felt at a brilliant effort from his players in beating his team’s biggest rival and advancing to face Group C winner Mexico in the quarterfinals on Friday was buried deep beneath his sadness and shock over the way it all came to a screeching crash. Hernández clearly felt similarly, visibly struggling when talking about what Díaz meant to the team as one of its leaders, both in the clubhouse and off the field. “He’s got a big bank account, but his heart is way bigger than that bank account,” he said. “It’s a big blow in more ways than one.” (The Mets tweeted late Wednesday night that Díaz had suffered a right knee injury and would undergo imaging on Thursday.)

Díaz was the last in a line of relievers that Molina deployed like an assembly line, opting to go with a bullpen game against the mighty DR. That was partly out of necessity: Puerto Rico had just two regular starters in Marcus Stroman and José Berríos, both of whom had already pitched earlier in the week, and nothing left but relievers. But as far as bullpens go, on paper, Puerto Rico’s didn’t look the equal of the parade of fire-ballers that Linares could (and did) roll out. Instead, Molina made his way with lesser lights like Fernando Cruz, a 32-year-old righty whose MLB career consists of 14.2 innings last season for a 100-loss Reds team, or Duane Underwood Jr., who spent 2022 working middle relief in Pittsburgh but was asked to handle the eighth inning against Rafael Devers, Eloy Jiménez, and Wander Franco.

Somehow, it all worked out. Cruz, working as an opener, walked Soto to start the bottom of the first but rebounded to strike out Julio Rodríguez and Devers around a Manny Machado pop-up. He couldn’t escape the second, departing after putting two on with two out, but the first reliever of the night, Twins lefty Jovani Moran, held the line by striking out Francisco Mejía. From there, Molina kept the bullpen churning: Moran gave way to Yacksel Ríos, who departed for Alexis Díaz, who was followed by Nicholas Padilla, who begat Methuselah, who begat Lamech, who begat Noah, who handed the ball off to Jorge López, then Underwood, and finally Edwin Díaz. All told, Puerto Rico used eight pitchers to get 27 outs, and though there were hairy moments aplenty, they were all up to the task.

“The bullpen did a spectacular job against one of the best baseball lineups ever,” Hernández said.

On the other side, Linares was hoping to get three innings out of his starter, the venerable Johnny Cueto, whose herky-jerky stylings were on full display. With wobbles, shimmies, stutter steps and quick pitches, the 37-year-old righty retired the first six Puerto Rican hitters in order, striking out two and throwing as hard as 92 mph — a figure he hasn’t hit in a regular season game since 2016. But the third proved to be his downfall. Christian Vázquez, playing as the DH so Martín Maldonado could catch, launched a middle-middle 90-mph fastball into the Dominican bullpen for a solo home run to start the inning. Practically skipping around the bases as his teammates hopped in front of the dugout, Vázquez touched home plate and disappeared into a scrum before emerging wearing his team’s home run prop: a tan-colored jacket covered in Puerto Rican flags and bearing, on its back, the phrase “LA GENTE DEL BARRIO.”

Things unraveled further from there. Vimael Machín, surprisingly starting at first base and hitting eighth, followed with a single. No. 9 hitter Maldonado squared around to bunt and pushed it to the left of the mound, where Cueto pounced on it but found himself with no play at first as the veteran catcher dove headfirst into the bag. That was the end of Cueto’s night, and Linares took no chances, opting for hard-throwing Astros righty Bryan Abreu as his fireman. He couldn’t douse the flames, though. Back-to-back singles from Lindor and Hernández — the latter chopped a ball over Machado’s head at third; “Thank goodness the grounds crew didn’t water the grass in front of home,” he deadpanned after the game — made it 3–0 Puerto Rico. Team Rubio tacked on a fourth run with an MJ Melendez groundout, after which Abreu finally shut the door. But that ended up being enough for Puerto Rico.

The Dominican Republic never got all that close. Soto opened the bottom of the third with a booming home run to straightaway center — 448 feet and 110 mph off the bat in a park that swallowed its fair share of deep fly balls all week — off of Moran to get his team on the board. Nothing more came of that frame, though. Bigger squanders were to come: In the fifth, the Dominicans loaded the bases against Alexis Díaz on two walks and a single, bringing Machado to the plate with runners everywhere and no outs against a reliever with no idea where the strike zone was. But the team’s hottest hitter weakly tapped a grounder to short to start a double play, scoring a run but putting a stake through the rally’s heart. An inning later, Jiménez ripped a leadoff double against Padilla, and a two-out Jeimer Candelario single put runners on the corners for Mejía, but again the DR couldn’t cash in, as the Rays catcher hit a soft fly ball to right for the third out.

The Dominicans didn’t threaten again after that point, going down in order in the seventh, eighth and ninth against Lopez, Underwood Jr., and Edwin Díaz. Six of those hitters struck out, including all three hitters in the ninth — Ketel Marte and pinch-hitters Jean Segura and Hernández — as Díaz whipped sliders and fired in 99-mph fastballs. Backed by Puerto Rican fans who somehow kept getting louder with each out, he made quick work of the side — and then amidst the cheers, suddenly brought everything to a standstill. It was made all the stranger by the delayed reactions from the players on the field. Hernández, celebrating with Melendez and Eddie Rosario in the outfield, didn’t notice that Díaz had gone down until the three had reached the infield dirt. Molina was hugging his coaches in the dugout when he realized that something had gone very wrong.

Díaz’s injury understandably cast a pall over the night, though it couldn’t take away what Puerto Rico had done. Not only did its pitching staff beat some of the greatest hitters in the world, but the lineup proved to be tenacious and aggressive (Puerto Rico collected zero walks on the night). It took advantage of the DR’s mistakes, too; in the fifth, Lindor lined a ball into center that took a strange hop on Rodríguez, skipping by him and rolling to the wall. Never slowing down, Lindor raced around the bases and slid headfirst into home for an inside-the-park home run, bouncing up and tossing his helmet into the air amid his cheering teammates.

“We had a good plan for their pitchers,” Molina said. “If you want to beat these guys, you put the ball in play. Good things happen when you do that.”

With the win, Puerto Rico moves on to play Mexico; Venezuela, which won Pool D, will square off against Pool C runner-up Team USA in the other quarterfinal game on Saturday. From here, the talk should be all about those matchups and the excitement of what comes next. Instead, the focus was on Díaz, and how quickly things had gone wrong on what should’ve been a night of boisterous celebration for a Puerto Rican team that should be one of the favorites to hoist this year’s trophy.

At least in the streets outside LoanDepot Park, the party went on anyway. The ending was a gut punch, but it couldn’t erase what the week had meant or how much fun it had all been. Over and over throughout Pool D play, those ideas kept coming up: orgullo and alegria — pride and joy. Those are the feelings at the heart of Latin American baseball, the animating principles that differentiate beisbol from baseball. To be amidst a massive crowd of shrieking, hyped up fans, surrounded by the music of the Caribbean, watching players celebrate and exult and salute each other, you could see what it is about the World Baseball Classic that inspires such fervor, and why some players are so eager and happy to throw on their national team jerseys for a mid-March exhibition. Pitched at the ideal level and with the right ingredients, it’s everything you could ask for from an international baseball tournament, potentially season-ending injuries to star players notwithstanding.

Díaz’s spill, though, shouldn’t be the final or overarching takeaway from the Pool of Death. Over five days, more than 200,000 fans in Miami — in a stadium that, as Hernández archly pointed out, doesn’t get nearly as many people to pass through the gates during the regular season as it has for the WBC — got to watch some of the best players in the world having fun and going full tilt in a do-or-die atmosphere. They got October in March. As they wearily left the park with shot voices and throats sore from screaming and hands numb from clapping, it’s hard to imagine that they could have asked for anything more.

Pool D Thursday Notes

  • While Molina and Hernández sadly discussed Díaz, Linares waded through a combative postgame press conference, fielding pointed questions about how a lineup worth over a billion dollars and a bullpen that went a dozen deep could fall short like this. Throughout it, he repeatedly stated, as many as a dozen times, that the result was his fault and his alone. “If you want to blame someone, blame me,” he told reporters in what quickly became a refrain. Some of the exchanges were particularly testy; at one point, a reporter angrily demanded to know why Devers, who went hitless in the cleanup spot and was invisible for most of the week, wasn’t benched for someone else. “I wouldn’t take anything back or do anything different,” he said of his decisions. By the end of the presser, you had to think that he was secretly thrilled to be heading back to Tampa to resume his job as the Rays’ bench coach.
  • One fault that Linares didn’t put on himself: the inability to construct the roster or use his players the way he wanted, thanks to MLB team-imposed limitations on participation and playing time. “We were handcuffed from the beginning, particularly with the pitchers,” Linares said, referring to the lack of starters he had at his disposal. Ironically, the Dominican Republic had the deepest rotation in Pool D, throwing Sandy Alcantara, Cristian Javier, Roansy Contreras, and Cueto. But it’s clear that he was deeply frustrated with how he had to manage his roster — a sentiment heard from Molina and Venezuela manager Omar Lopez as well.
  • Was Pool D simply too tough? Some reporters wondered whether a group in which one of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela would have to be eliminated was a poor setup given how impressive those teams are. But no one took the bait dangling on that particular hook. “The group as it was was good, the most competitive,” Linares said. Added Hernández: “It brought a jolt.”
  • Next up in Miami this weekend: the quarterfinals, featuring Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, and the United States. The winners of that group will stay here for the semifinals, where they’ll be joined by the quarterfinal victors in the other half of the bracket, Cuba and Japan, before the championship game next Tuesday. Asked about Mexico, Hernández admitted that he hadn’t been able to see much of them this week but was impressed with what they’d done. “They sent a message by beating the U.S. the way they did,” he told reporters.

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11 months ago

There is no more snakebitten team than the Mets.

11 months ago
Reply to  Alby

Do we have to do this every time?

11 months ago
Reply to  Alby

They’re spending like 450M on player contracts lmao. Like yeah it’s not great for the Mets or Diaz, but come on. At least it’s not the shoulder or the elbow.

11 months ago
Reply to  steveo

Ironically, I actually think it might be better if it were an elbow.

Assuming this is an ACL tear, he will be out a year. TJS would be a bit longer, but then his elbow would be healthy/normal. Who knows what Diaz’s elbow looks like right now, but I doubt it gets better just because he’s rehabbing a knee.

11 months ago
Reply to  Alby

The Angels would like a word

11 months ago
Reply to  Alby

There are many teams as snake bitten as the Mets. There is nothing “special” about them in that way; it’s just how fans perceive them.

11 months ago
Reply to  MikeD

Try losing peak Bauer to a stupid self-injury just before the WS.

Or a domiant closer shaking off the C on the last out and going with his third best pitch.

Or a team going out in the first round of the playoffs over and over.

Or winning over a hundred games and going home because that only made them second best in their division, pre-WC.

Pretty much every team has their tales of woe, but their fans only care about *their* trauma.

11 months ago
Reply to  fjtorres

I’m actually a Phillies fan. I say the Mets are at least tied for most snakebitten because even when things look great for them they somehow go south.