SAN FRANCISCO -- – Time to up your game, Rally Squirrel. You, too, Rally Monkey. And better adjust those bills, you Rally Caps. Thanks to Fernando Rodney, you all have new competition. The Rally Plantain.
Plantains are a staple at Dominican Republic tables and they might now be a dugout staple as well. During player introductions before Monday's semifinal game against the Netherlands, Rodney pulled a giant plantain from his belt (fill in your own punch line) and showed it to the crowd. The veteran closer later brandished one in the dugout as well when the Dominicans rallied from an early deficit to beat the Netherlands 4-1 and advance to Tuesday night's World Baseball Classic championship against the Puerto Rico.
"We're going to the final for the first time in the Classic," Rodney said after closing out the 4-1 victory. "And the plantain gives me luck for tomorrow."
If the Dominican Republic wins Tuesday night, it would become the first team to go undefeated in a WBC. Japan lost three times in 2006 and twice in 2009 en route to their championships. The 2009 WBC featured a tense, dramatic game between archrivals Japan and Korea. This one will try to match it with rivals Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
"There has always been a rivalry between the Dominican and Puerto Rico in everything. Sports and everything," said Dominican general manager Moises Alou, whose team beat Puerto Rico twice in last week's second round. "We're close to each other and I know that will mean a lot to both countries.
"I saw some of the Puerto Rican players at lunch and nobody said good luck to me."
Few Dominican fans were wishing their team well after the 2009 WBC, either. When the Dominicans lost twice to the Netherlands that year and didn't get out of the first round, the players felt the wrath of fans angered by the poor performance.
"There was so much negative stuff written and said about what happened in 2009," Alou said. "Dominican fans are rough. They take it personal. It's like in Europe or South America with the soccer. It's the same thing in the Dominican. Hopefully, if we win, these guys are going to be heroes for the rest of their lives."
Alou said that, because of what happened in 2009, players committed themselves to making up for the performance this year. Several players played winter ball to get themselves ready. "They wanted to give back to the country and show the country that we are good players," Alou added.
They've shown that this tournament though the Dominicans struggled early against the Netherlands, trailing 1-0 until the fifth inning against Dutch starter Diegomar Markwell and his Jamie Moyer-like velocity that clocked between the mid-60s and low 80s. Players were swinging at bad pitches. Stress was mounting. Time for the Rally Plantain.
"You know, baseball is just about to have fun, and those guys, they tried to motivate themselves doing the little things," Dominican manager Tony Pena said. "The thing is that you need to find a way. How are you going to lose the stress? How are you going to keep your whole group of players laughing, keeping loose?
"So I got surprised when I saw Rodney with a banana, a plantain, on the side. When he pulled them out, I just laughed. Right in the middle of the game, this made everybody laugh. And the ballclub, the game like this, you need to have a little bit of fun. You need to find a way to loosen up. And I'm glad that he did it."
After Carlos Santana's one-out double in the fifth, Moises Sierra, a late substitution in left field, doubled to tie the game, then came around to score the go-ahead run in what became a four-run inning. This was after Sierra dove into the stands to snatch a foul ball away from a fan in the first inning, a play that was an instant reminder to Alou of the infamous Bartman play in the 2003 National League Championship Series, though with better results.
"This has been one of my greatest experiences," said Sierra, who made his major league debut with Toronto last July. "To be able to represent my country has been the best thing that's happened to me. Thank God I was able to do it well."
And now it's on to Tuesday's climax when Samuel Deduno starts for the Dominican Republic against Puerto Rico's Giancarlo Alvarado. Deduno has a 1.13 ERA and 12 strikeouts in eight WBC innings. If he falters, the Dominican Republic can rely on its bullpen, which has thrown 16 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings.
"We already played Dominican Republic twice and we have been watching those hitters for years, individually and for many years in the big leagues," Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "So we have a pretty good idea how to pitch them and we already know who they have in the bullpen. [We're] talking about having an idea who we're going to face. Yeah, I think we feel very comfortable."
"Whoever wins the World Baseball Classic is really going to be the Caribbean's [champion]," Pena said. "It could be Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, but it will belong to the Caribbean."
In other words, better have the plantains ready.