By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)
The World Baseball Classic championship game will have a distinctly Caribbean flavour this year. The Dominican Republic fought off a gallant Dutch side to earn a 4-1 semifinal round victory and advance to the title match versus Puerto Rico. The undefeated Dominicans received a strong start from Edinsón Vólquez, who teamed up with three relievers on a four-hitter.
The Netherlands struck first in the win-or-go-home contest. Vólquez exhibited his usual first inning control problems, walking Andrelton Simmons and Jurickson Profar to start the game. They advanced on a ground ball and Simmons scored on a tapper to short by Wladimir Balentien.
Diegomar Markwell, who induced a number of key grounders in his last start, also against a power-hitting lineup in Cuba, started off well for the Orange. The southpaw gave up a hit to Robinsón Canó in the inning, extending the Dominican second baseman’s streak to seven games, but was otherwise untouched.
Both starters matched zeroes through the next three frames. Vólquez, in particular, looked strong, retiring 11 batters consecutively beginning in the first frame. The streak ended with two outs in the fourth when Andruw Jones had the Netherlands’ first hit of the game.
Markwell was solid, picking off a batter in the second and getting out of the third after Miguel Tejada forgot to check the scoreboard before popping up a bunt with two down. The veteran Dutch pitcher finally ran into trouble in the fifth, though.
With one out, Markwell gave up back-to-back doubles to Carlos Santana and Moisés Sierra, who had made a spectacular leaping catch on a fly ball that landed two seats into the stands in left field to end the first inning. Markwell registered the next out, but needed eight pitches to get it and the hurler was clearly tiring by the time he faced José Reyes.
The Dominican leadoff hitter worked the count full before blooping a single just over Markwell’s head that scored Sierra with the second run in the inning. Markwell stayed in to face Tejada, who stroked another hit over second base and the Dominicans continued to rally.
With Canó, a left-handed hitter, at the plate, Netherlands skipper Hensley Meulens pulled Markwell, who by WBC pitch restrictions could have faced the slugger as his last batter. Meulens inserted right-hander Tom Stuifbergen, who threw a wild pitch to score an elated Reyes.
Tejada moved to second, and with first now open, Stuifbergen gave Canó an intentional pass. That set the stage for Edwin Encarnación to plate Tejada with yet another one-base hit to centre. With two outs, Canó was hustling on the play and tried to advance to third on the shallow single, but Roger Bernadina gunned him down with a perfect strike to Jonathan Schoop at third.
The damage was done, however, and Dominican Republic manager Tony Peña turned the ball over to his dominant bullpen. Kelvin Herrera pumped in 98-mph/158-kmh fastballs in scoreless sixth and seventh innings, working around a double to Balentien in the former.
Peña’s hitters were unable to put together another rally in the game, and with the score still 4-1, Fernando Rodney entered to pitch the ninth. The Classic record-holder added another save to the books with a 1-2-3, two-strikeout final frame and his teammates flooded the mound to congratulate him.
Vólquez earned his first win of the WBC with five innings of one-run ball. He gave up two hits and a pair of walks, striking out five. Herrera struck out three in two scoreless frames and Strop tossed a scoreless eighth. Rodney nailed down his sixth save, a Classic record for tournament and career.
Markwell fell to 2-1 in the Classic and was charged with all four Dominican runs on six hits and one base on balls. He threw 4 2/3 innings and did not strike out a batter. Stuifbergen, Leon Boyd, and Loek Van Mil finished off the game.
Dominican pitching scattered three free passes and four safeties over its nine innings. The Orange struck out 10 times and was hitless with runners on base. The victors collected nine hits and reached base 12 times while only whiffing once. Reyes and Tejada both had two hits for Peña, while Canó reached base in three plate appearances. The club was 3-for-5 with runners in scoring position.
The Netherlands failed in its bid to defend its world title, achieved in 2011. Still, the fourth-place finish is the best-ever by a European nation in the WBC. The Dominicans also earned revenge after the Dutch beat them twice in the 2009 Classic to prevent the team from advancing out of the first round.
With Japan, the two-time World Baseball Classic champion, also eliminated, this year’s title game will be the first all-Caribbean world title game since 1990, when Cuba defeated Nicaragua. Both the Dominican Republic (1948) and Puerto Rico (1951) last won a world title more than 60 years ago. Those two world championships are the only two times that Caribbean teams have met to crown a champion without Cuba represented in the game.
The Dominican Republic is the first team ever to win its first seven games in a Classic. The only other squad that was undefeated after two rounds, Korea, lost in the 2006 semifinals. Puerto Rico has earned its trip to the final the hard way, staving off elimination in the second round. They are 5-3.
The two Caribbean heavyweights will contest the world championship on Mar. 19 at 8 p.m. EST in AT&T Park in San Francisco. Tune in for all the coverage of the World Baseball Classic’s final game of 2013 and continued analysis after the new champion is crowned.