Dominican Republic and its fans electrify World Baseball Classic

 SANTO DOMINGO NORTH – That’s what this was, the capital of the Dominican Republic relocated to Miami, the closest major city in the United States.

The crowd of 37,446 – the largest for baseball in the five-year history of Marlins Park – seemed at least 80 percent Dominican and sounded 180 percent that way.

The good news for Team USA – and yes, there was good news Saturday even after a blown 5-0 lead with 12 outs to go in an eventual 7-5 defeat – is that this was a singular moment for the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Team USA might face the Dominican Republic and its crazy-deep lineup again in this tournament, but it will not again contend with the same type of raucous, joyous opposing crowd. Not in San Diego, site of the next round should the U.S. advance. Not in Los Angeles, site of the championship round.

The atmosphere was possible only because of the proximity of the D.R. to Miami and the large number of Dominicans who attended from south Florida and other eastern locales. The noise was non-stop – drums and horns, hoots and hollers, chants that echoed long into the Miami night.

The remarkable comeback by the Dominicans, featuring home runs by Manny Machado, Nelson Cruz and Starling Marte, capped one of the most memorable games in the WBC’s 12-year history, if not the most memorable.

On a day when Royals catcher Salvador Perez suffered a knee injury while playing for Venezuela – providing a fresh opening for critics of the tournament – the drama and electricity at Marlins Park was a vivid reminder of the best this event has to offer.

“Thursday was loud,” said Cruz, referring to the Dominican’s opening game against Canada. “But today was unreal.”

Team USA starter Marcus Stroman thrived amid the clamor, opening with 4 2/3 scoreless innings and receiving the ultimate compliment from manager Jim Leyland: “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anybody more determined than he was tonight.”

But righty Tanner Roark, the pitcher who followed Stroman, all but admitted that he was unnerved by the Dominican fans, who roared back to life after the first of three runs he allowed, a 435-foot homer by Manny Machado.

Roark, talking to reporters on a concourse outside Team USA’s clubhouse, noted that the crowd was loud during warmups.

“Even right now,” a reporter said with the fans still audible outside a good 30 minutes after the game’s conclusion.

“Even still right now,” Roark said. “You can hear the horns right now.”

So, did the crowd get to him?

“Yes and no,” Roark said. “I think I need to channel it a little better, block it out, slow the game down. I think I let it speed up on me.”

Dominican manager Tony Pena said the environment reminded him of a winter-league game involving Tigres del Licey, the country’s most famous team.

Cruz said it was like that, but at a higher level, and he reacted in kind. After his go-ahead, three-run homer off Andrew Miller in the eighth inning, he showed more emotion than at any point in his 12-year major-league career.

As Cruz’s shot soared down the left-field line, he skipped sideways down the first-base line, looking almost like Carlton Fisk in the 1975 World Series, but without the waving arms.

He then pumped his fist vigorously three times as the ball stayed fair, floated around the bases and seemed ready to tear off his jersey as he reached home, where his teammates waited for him after pouring out of the dugout.

Cruz, 36, has hit 300 homers in the majors – 284 in the regular season, 16 in the postseason. This one, he said, was at the top, explaining that it was for the Dominican fans who follow him from team to team in the majors, love him wherever he goes.

Had he ever been that excited?

“Maybe in dreams. Maybe when you play Little League,” Cruz said. “To be able to deliver in that situation, it’s something indescribable.”

Miller, unlike Roark, barely mentioned the effect of the crowd on his performance. He was more upset that with a two-run lead, he started the eighth inning by hitting Jose Bautista on a 1-2 count, setting in motion the events that led to Cruz’s homer.

The next hitter, Carlos Santana, hit a sharp grounder up the middle that was perhaps five feet away from being turned into a double play. Second baseman Ian Kinsler made a diving backhand stop, but could not complete the force.

Next came Cruz, with two on and none out.

Miller got ahead 0-2 on a pair of sliders, then threw a third that he didn’t get it in far enough.

“The idea in a count like that, if they can hit, they shouldn’t be able to hit it that hard fair,” Miller said. “I made a mistake. That’s my fault.”

Marte, after a strikeout of Adrian Beltre, hit a 93-mph fastball to the opposite field for another home run.

Miller had never faced Marte, and in this age of information, was curiously unaware of how to work him.

“I had zero idea what he likes to do, where he hits the ball, what he’s going for,” Miller said.

The Marte homer only added to the frenzy among the Dominican fans, and the 1-2-3 save by Jeurys Familia in the ninth set off the final celebration.

Yet, as draining as the night was, both teams must play again Sunday as the first round continues and possibly concludes.

First, the Dominican Republic will play Colombia in a game at 12:38 p.m. ET. Colombia will be better rested after defeating Canada earlier Saturday, but it also will start right-hander Nabil Crismatt, who has pitched only once above A ball.

At 7:08, Team USA will face Canada right-hander Ryan Dempster, who was out of the game for 3½ years, and now will pitch for the second time in four days.

A U.S. victory, combined with a Dominican victory over surprisingly impressive Colombia, would send both Team USA and the Dominican Republic to San Diego. But more complex scenarios are possible.

The Dominican Republic is 2-0, Team USA and Colombia 1-1, Canada 0-2. A tiebreaker, starting with fewest runs allowed, would be required if three teams finished 2-1 or 1-2. And one more game would be necessary Monday.

Whatever happens, it seems difficult to imagine that the Dominican players could duplicate the passion that they showed Saturday.

Then again, maybe not.

“This is how we play baseball,” Machado said. “This is how we’re raised to play. This is the only baseball we know.”

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