If you don't think the World Baseball Classic is a fun event, you didn't watch Thursday night's game in Miami. And if you didn't watch the game, you didn't see the Dominican fans waving flags and blowing horns and cheering every pitch for nine innings. You didn't see the Dominican players leaping over the dugout railing when Erick Aybar singled in Nelson Cruz with the go-ahead run in the ninth or Aybar being mobbed at home plate when he scored on Jose Reyes' RBI single. You didn't see something that was unthinkable last season: Craig Kimbrel giving up more than one hit in a relief appearance. You didn't see Fernando Rodney and his crooked cap retiring Shane Victorino for the final out in the 3-1 victory, with Rodney firing his imaginary arrow in celebration.
In other words, you missed a great baseball game. I'll say this: It was more exciting than any World Series game from last fall (well, unless you're a Giants fan).
How dominant was Kimbrel a year ago? In 63 appearances, he never allowed more than one hit. He allowed just one double all season. Maybe he was due. Cruz led off with a hustle double into the right-center gap, just beating the throw from Giancarlo Stanton. (In a regular spring training game, Cruz is planted at first base.) After Carlos Santana moved Cruz to third with a groundout, Aybar pinch hit. Angel Hernandez -- terrible all game behind the plate -- botched a 1-1 pitch that was several inches outside, so give Aybar credit for keeping his cool and softly lining the next pitch, a 97 mph inside fastball, into right field for the go-ahead run. After he stole second, Reyes knocked him in. Kimbrel hadn't allowed two runs in a game since September ... of 2011. Props to the Dominicans for a clutch rally.
If there was a bad pitch Kimbrel made it was the 1-2 fastball to Aybar. After getting the gift call from Hernandez on the 1-1 pitch, why didn’t he go back outside with a fastball or another slider to see if Aybar would chase? That’s one aspect of the WBC: Pitchers may not always be in sync with their catcher like they would be in the regular season.
The key pitch of the game, however, may have come in the bottom of the first inning. Samuel Deduno started for the Dominican; he pitched poorly enough for the Twins last year that they removed him from their 40-man roster. Eric Hosmer had walked with two outs and the bases loaded to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead and then Deduno fell behind three balls to Adam Jones. After two fastballs for a called strike and a foul ball, Deduno dropped in a beautiful 3-2 curveball for a called strike. Deduno settled down from there, allowing just two more hits over his final three frames and finishing with seven K's.
The Dominican team is lacking in starting pitching, but the one area in which it can match the U.S. is bullpen depth and you saw it in full force on Thursday, led by Royals right-hander Kelvin Herrera and his high-octane heater. He pitched the fifth and sixth innings, allowing no hits. Veteran Octavio Dotel and Pedro Strop pitched the seventh and eighth to get the ball to Rodney. Linescore for the bullpen: 5 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 2 SO.
Joe Torre helped out the opponent again with another ill-advised bunt. After J.P. Arencibia led off the second with a single, Willie Bloomquist -- playing third base for the injured David Wright -- then sacrificed on a 3-1 count. Instead of playing for a big inning against a struggling pitcher, Torre gave away an out and the U.S. failed to score that inning.
I saw some tweets that suggested the World Baseball Classic isn't worth watching because Bloomquist was starting for the U.S. I don't get this argument. The All-Star Game is full of the world's best players but the game is rarely that interesting. Why? Because it's not a real game. The starting pitcher goes one or maybe two innings, the starters come out after a couple at-bats, nobody cares all that much about winning or losing (you certainly don't see the long faces from the losing team like you saw when Italy was eliminated), the managers just want to get everyone in the game and sometimes the commissioner just raises his hands and calls it a tie. The World Baseball Classic isn't perfect -- and because pitchers are held to pitch counts it's not quite like a real game -- but at least Ryan Braun and Robinson Cano aren't being lifted in the middle of the game. Plus, to take it one step further, did you not care about the World Series because guys like Gregor Blanco and Quintin Berry played?
Also, for all the complaining about the U.S. not fielding its best team, the Dominican squad was missing many of its stars, including Adrian Beltre, Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano, Johnny Cueto and others. Because of that, it started career minor leaguer Ricardo Nanita in left field and Miguel Tejada, who last played in the majors in 2011, at third base.
Ryan Vogelsong now faces Puerto Rico in a winner advances/loser goes back to spring training game on Friday night in Miami. The U.S. may replace Wright on the roster with another third baseman (update: the U.S. can't replace Wright until the semifinals) and we’ll also have to see if Torre will use any of the relievers -- most notably, Kimbrel -- on consecutive days. Nelson Figueroa starts for Puerto Rico. The Puerto Ricans don’t have the same kind of bullpen depth as the Dominican team, so they will likely need Figueroa to go five or six innings on his 85-pitch limit.