Dominican Republic on a mission
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Here's all you need to know about what this World Baseball Classic means in the Dominican Republic:
The president of the country interrupted his busy schedule recently to tell his nation -- not to mention the men who play baseball for his nation:
"I think the Dominican Republic should take this opportunity to tell the world who we are."
Oh. And one more thing:
"And what I ask the stars," president Danilo Medina said, "is to give a small step forward to lift up the country."
But what about the guys who are on this team? Let's just say it looked on Tuesday like they got the message.
In their first pre-WBC exhibition game, all those guys did to entertain themselves was whomp the Phillies 15-2, crank 28 hits along the way and actually get kind of down at the end that they didn't get 30. Seriously.
"I heard one of the guys [in the dugout] say, 'We need two more hits to get 30 hits,'" said three-time WBC participant Miguel Tejada afterward. "I said, 'Wow. Incredible.'"
Yeah, it was incredible, all right, considering that only seven teams have gotten 28 hits (or more) in a regular-season game in the past 50 years -- and the Phillies hadn't given up 28 hits in a regular-season game in 82 years.
So just wondering: How many would this team have gotten if Pujols, Ortiz and Bautista played? Like 40 hits? Maybe 50?
But here's what's even more incredible: Four years ago, the WBC didn't go quite this thrillingly for a Dominican team that did include Ortiz, Bautista and a true All-Star cast. That team got bounced from the festivities in the first round. The first round. It then headed home early, while the Netherlands -- ouch, the Netherlands -- moved on.
Back home on the island, that wasn't just a defeat. It was a national embarrassment.
So for this team -- which will begin pool play Thursday in Puerto Rico in a group that includes Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Spain -- the heat is on. But these men got that memo a long time ago. And they're ready for it.
Asked about that pressure on Tuesday, Dominican general manager Moises Alou never even tried to dance his way out of that spotlight.
"I hate to say pressure, but we have to come out of [the first round in] Puerto Rico, you know?" Alou said. "I mean, we're going to. We have to. And we're going to -- because of what happened last time."
Last time. They're the two words this team has no chance to escape. Last time is still stuck in every gut, every crevice, every memory bank in the country. So this 2013 edition doesn't just have to make up for last time. Or make people forget last time. It's on a greater mission -- to restore national pride and dignity.
This team has been officially assigned by its president, remember, to "tell the world who we are" -- regardless of who is playing for this team. Or, most notably, who isn't.
When he first got this job, Alou said Tuesday, he began with a list of 50 players. Of those 50, he admitted, "there's not many guys here today." That's not his fault. But he knows not everyone in his country will see it that way.
"I'm not going to look for any excuse," he said. "We've got pretty much the hand we were dealt. This is the best team we could put on the field. It's not like I had the other guys available and I didn't put them on the team. That would have been different.
"But, you know what?" he said. "From day one, I got the manager that I wanted [Tony Pena]. I got the coaches that I wanted to be on the team. And I got the players who really wanted to be here. And that's the one thing I wanted."
The good news is, those "players who really wanted to be here" aren't real concerned with the guys who didn't want to. Or weren't allowed to.
"The chemistry this team has is unbelievable," said Jose Reyes, another three-time WBC veteran, after that 28-hit barrage. "This team that we have, we have a lot of energy. We're hungry to play the game, because we know what happened the first two WBCs. We know this is our opportunity."
And it is. For one thing, they've assembled a veritable Dominican Infield Hall of Fame -- with Reyes at short, Robinson Cano at second, Hanley Ramirez and Tejada at third and Edwin Encarnacion at first. And if they get through the first round, they could add Adrian Beltre to that group.
"It's possible," said Pena. "I saw he played yesterday [for the Rangers]."
There's also Carlos Santana behind the plate, Nelson Cruz in right and a potentially dominating bullpen of Fernando Rodney, Octavio Dotel, Pedro Strop, Jose Veras and Kelvin Herrera, behind a rotation fronted by Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez.
In a format with strict pitch counts for starters in the first two rounds, that bullpen "is very, very important," Pena said. "And that's our strength, is our bullpen."
So this is a team very capable of winning the whole extravaganza. Still, the buzzing back home is about the men who chose not to play. Imagine that.
In the United States, players who bow out of the WBC are readily forgiven. But in the Dominican, "it's a lot different," Alou said. "And that's one thing I'm very careful with. When I speak to the Dominican media, I say, 'Do not hate those guys.' I never say who told me, 'No, I'm not going to play.' I say, 'His team didn't want him to,' or, 'I blame the agent.' Because there's hate. They're going to hate some guys who don't play for the Dominican team."
And that hatefest will be lurking throughout the tournament, ready to roar to life if this team doesn't fulfill its mission. But at least for one astounding 28-hit afternoon, all was well with Team Dominicana.
"We all know what happened last time," said Tejada, who got four of those hits. "We're not going to feel comfortable against anybody. It doesn't matter how many runs we score in the game early. We've got to play hard, even in a game like today.
"We all can't wait to play this game today, because we all want to show the whole world that we have a great team."
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