<
>

WBC's main event delivers the goods

MIAMI -- Commissioner Bud Selig and the folks at the MLB Players Association can make all the grand proclamations they want about the World Baseball Classic. They can talk about how it's great for global goodwill, international marketing and baseball's efforts to expand to new and previously untapped markets.

But when the anthems end and the games begin, all the promotion and hype in the world only mean so much. Sometimes you just have to turn on the TV, settle back in a comfy chair with a cold beverage and let the baseball speak for itself.

How much do these games mean to the players themselves? Those millionaire mosh pits around home plate say it all.

The United States met the Dominican Republic on Thursday night for the first time in the brief history of the WBC, and the result was everything the buildup suggested it could be. Plop two proud and talent-laden teams under one roof -- even the Miami Marlins' roof -- and they can produce something special even three days before St. Patrick's Day.

The Dominican Republic beat Team USA 3-1 to ensure itself a spot in the semifinals in San Francisco, but the final score tells only part of the story. It doesn't convey the surge of energy that swept through the Dominican dugout and carried the team's players onto the field when pinch hitter Erick Aybar singled home Nelson Cruz with the go-ahead run off Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel in the ninth. And it fails to capture the sight of Dominican pitcher Edinson Volquez, flag draped over his shoulders, rushing the mound with his teammates to congratulate Fernando Rodney after he retired Shane Victorino on a pop fly for the 27th out.

When Dominican manager Tony Pena pulled a John Boehner and nearly cried at his postgame news conference -- that was the biggest surprise of the evening. It was the most emotional baseball-related media session since Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez broke down and wept before a bank of cameras in mid-February. All it took to make King Felix cry was a seven-year, $175 million commitment from the Mariners.

After thanking God and paying homage to the Dominican fans for their support, Pena struggled to put his feelings into words.

"I feel so emotional because when we were putting together this team, these young men who are here [showed up] from the first day,'' Pena said. "I don't think I'll again have a group of young men with the dedication and the dignity with which they have represented our country. As I've said before, 'When you want to, you can.'''

The crowd of 34,366 at Marlins Park was about 3,000 short of a sellout, but the energy was off the charts. The Dominican fans waved flags, blew horns and made enough noise to remind Cruz of his two World Series appearances with the Texas Rangers.

"There's no doubt it's the best I ever played because of the way the fans responded,'' Cruz said. "As a player, I cannot ask for anything else from my fans. They give everything they have, every inning, every play.''

The pitching was strong enough from both teams to ensure that this would be a tight game from start to finish. Team USA starter R.A. Dickey was fine for his five innings, with the exception of a tumbling knuckler that Hanley Ramirez pummeled over the 427-foot sign in left field for a solo homer. Dominican starter Samuel Deduno struck out seven hitters in four innings and allowed only one run before reaching his allotted 80 pitches.

That's when Torre and Pena turned it over to their bullpens, and they were borderline flawless for the most part. In the Dominican Republic's two games here in Miami, Rodney and his setup contingent of Kelvin Herrera, Octavio Dotel, Pedro Strop, Santiago Casilla & Co. have thrown 9⅔ shutout innings and allowed a grand total of two hits.

With the game tied 1-1 in the ninth, Torre went to his hammer and summoned Kimbrel. After a leadoff double by Cruz, Cleveland catcher Carlos Santana did his job and hit a ground ball to the right side to move Cruz up a base. That prompted Pena to lift left fielder Ricardo Nanita for Aybar.

When plate umpire Angel Hernandez called a strike on a pitch that was shin-high and maybe a foot outside to make the count 1-2, Aybar briefly lost his composure and vented his emotions. Then, he calmly stepped back in the box, got a 97 mph fastball from Kimbrel that caught too much of the plate and whacked it into right field for the eventual game-winning hit.

When Jose Reyes singled off Kimbrel to make it 3-1 Dominican, it was the baseball equivalent of snow in Miami. Kimbrel, amazingly, made 63 appearances with the Braves last season and recorded a .126 batting average against. He didn't allow two runs, or even two hits, in any one of those outings but gave up three hits and two runs in the span of six hitters Thursday night. His WBC earned run average is 10.80.

After the game, Kimbrel said he had no problems coming on with a tie score in the top of the ninth. And he welcomed the pressure.

"It feels like October, not March,'' Kimbrel said, "Any time you get this many people in the stands, getting as excited as they are, it feels like a postseason atmosphere.''

Therein lies the promotional challenge for Selig and the players' union. The WBC may never resonate with fans in the United States the way it does with baseball die-hards in Japan and the Latin countries. But within the confines of the park, the games are often magnetic, regardless of who's playing. If American baseball fans simply tune out because the concept seems too gimmicky or they're preoccupied with March Madness or the NFL draft, they're missing something.

Captain America certainly thinks so. Mets third baseman David Wright was the face of Team USA before going down with a rib injury that appears likely to sideline him for the rest of the Classic. He seemed truly remorseful over the prospect of having played his final WBC game of 2013.

"This has been one of the best times I've had playing baseball,'' Wright said before heading up to Port St. Lucie to consult with the Mets' medical staff. "It's a wonderful tournament.''

Barring a surprise or a medical miracle, Wright will be a spectator when Team USA's Ryan Vogelsong takes on Puerto Rico's Nelson Figueroa on Friday at 7 p.m. ET. The winner plays the Dominican on Saturday for the purpose of seeding in the semifinals in San Francisco. The players from the losing team will scatter to their respective spring training camps in Arizona and Florida.

If the games so far are any indication, the baseball will be intense and immensely entertaining. The tears will be optional.