Passion made March night ‘like October’

The day before, Dominican Republic manager Tony Pena engaged in classic manager-speak, all but calling the D.R.-USA matchup “just another game.”

“We’re going to play to win, no matter who we play,” Pena told a group of American reporters. “We’re going step by step, game by game.”

Pena was lying. And his reaction Thursday night, as he teared up in the postgame interview room, was proof.

I caught Pena after he completed his interviews following the Dominicans’ stirring 3-1 victory over the U.S., caught him on his way back to the victorious clubhouse.

C’mon, Tony, just another game?

“That was not,” Pena said, laughing. “That was tense. That was a lot of stress.”

That, folks, was as good as baseball gets.

And if you can’t understand why all of this matters, why the World Baseball Classic is so meaningful to all of the other countries participating, consider that the Dominican is a country with a population of about 10 million, or about half that of the New York metropolitan area.

Now I know what you’re thinking: It was the WBC, not the World Series. It was March, not October. But here’s what Team USA closer Craig Kimbrel said after allowing two runs in the top of the ninth, enabling the D.R. to break a 1-1 tie:

“It feels like October, not March.”

No, this was not an elimination game: The Dominican Republic advanced to the championship round with its victory, but Team USA can earn the other semifinal berth by defeating Puerto Rico in a loser-go-home game Friday night.

Still, the passion of the Dominican players and their fans created an electricity unlike anything normally seen in Major League Baseball, even in the postseason.

Some American fans on Twitter actually objected to the constant horn-blowing of the Dominican fans and the on-field celebrations of their players in the ninth. Some old-school baseball types object, too, as if the only proper way to play the game is in staid, humble fashion.

Sorry, I didn’t know we were playing tennis.

And while I can’t think of an appropriate English or Spanish phrase, there is one in French that applies:

Vive le difference!

The large contingent of Dominicans in the crowd of 34,366 spent the entire night jumping, dancing and waving flags — on every pitch. Both Pena and Nelson Cruz credited the fans with giving the players energy. Cruz, who has appeared in two World Series with the Texas Rangers, said, “There’s no doubt it’s the best I ever played because of the way the fans responded.”

Oh, it was a night of high drama, from Team USA’s last-second removal of third baseman David Wright due to a sore ribcage to the disputes over the super-sized strike zone of plate umpire Angel Hernandez, which helped set up the game’s pivotal moment.

Major league umpires for the WBC are chosen from a pool of applicants, according to an MLB official. A relatively small number apply, reasoning that working high-pressure games in March is not good for their well-being. And I’m guessing that the intensity of the U.S.-D.R. game isn’t going to change any of their minds.

The game nearly turned on a strike called by Hernandez on a 1-1 slider by Kimbrel to pinch-hitter Erick Aybar with one out and Cruz on third in the ninth. The pitch was so far outside, pitchers Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson and Daniel Hudson were among the major leaguers who criticized it on Twitter. Aybar leaped and spun out of the batter’s box, in frustration, in disbelief.

Well, justice was done.

Kimbrel came back with a 97 mph fastball that he later admitted caught too much of the plate. Aybar lined it into right to give the D.R. the lead, then stole second. With two out, Jose Reyes delivered a two-out RBI single to provide the D.R. with an insurance run.

The failure of Kimbrel, who allowed three hits and two runs, was nothing short of stunning; he made 63 appearances last season for the Atlanta Braves without giving up more than a single hit or run.

Kimbrel pitched under familiar circumstances – the U.S. was the home team, and most managers use their closers in a tie game at home in the ninth inning. The difference was that it was only mid-March, but he did not use the accelerated timetable as an excuse.

“I love it,” he said. “My job is to go out there in the most pressurized situation of the game. I just didn’t get the job done.”

So now Team USA is left with one more shot, with San Francisco Giants right-hander Ryan Vogelsong facing Puerto Rican journeyman Nelson Figueroa on Friday night. The winner then will face the D.R. on Saturday afternoon to determine seeding for the championship round — and yes, the game will be meaningful, because the loser will face Japan in San Francisco on Sunday while the winner will face Kingdom of the Netherlands on Monday.

As the ninth inning unfolded, Pena was thinking about the possibility of losing such a close game, the possibility of needing to play an elimination game on Friday, the possibility of letting down an entire country.

He admitted to sort of freaking out.

“Every pitch counted. Every single move you made counted,” Pena said. “I was thinking about the difference (each move) would make if you were to lose.

“I was using all of our horses. And tomorrow, if I had to play tomorrow, I was thinking, ‘Who am I going to use?’ I said, ‘I know. I know the big man upstairs will supply the power.”

No longer was Pena near tears. He was laughing now. Laughing about a triumph for the ages, a special moment in baseball history, a night that no one in the Dominican Republic will soon forget.

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