7:38 PM CDT, March 12, 2013
MIAMI — One victory away from San Francisco, three away from the championship they covet, the celebration has started early for Robinson Cano and his decorated teammates from the Dominican Republic.
Not the party, however.
That was in the first round four years ago, when players island-hopped between Santo Domingo and San Juan like super models on a photo shoot. They wound up losing twice to the Netherlands and returning to spring-training camps early while Japan maintained its hold on the World Baseball Classic.
On Tuesday afternoon at Marlins Park, with a noisy jubilant crowd of 14,482 cheering them on, the Dominicans dug themselves out of a 4-0, first-inning hole to beat Italy 5-4. When Nelson Cruz singled in the seventh inning to break a tie, it seemed that every one of his teammates hopped the dugout rail and congratulated Cano, who U-turned toward the dugout after scoring.
Hanley Ramirez, who soaked up the joy that came from being serenaded by this crowd, an experience that came and went when he played for the Marlins, led the charge, then lingered on the dirt. Not your typical day at the office, for anyone.
"It is a unique group,'' said Yankees bench coach Tony Pena, who is managing the Dominican Republic. "This group is here for a reason. They know the reason, and everybody knows the reason. We (had) a great experience in the past. We were a great talent and didn't make it past the first round.''
Dominican players expected their talent to carry them in the event they call "the Classic.'' They lost to Cuba in the semifinal round in 2006 but the '09 embarrassment gave them a 6-4 record entering this event. The record is 10-4 now, as they are the tournament's last unbeaten team.
"It's obvious that they're playing better than the last two tournaments,'' said Mike Piazza, Italy's hitting coach. "They're more focused. Maybe they have learned from their mistakes.''
Edinson Volquez's control problems and a three-run homer from Twins' Triple-A slugger Chris Colabello gave Italy a chance to follow the lead of the Dutch, who played giant-killer by 3-2 and 2-1 scores four years ago. The truth is this became a winnable game for the underdogs who shocked Mexico and Canada last weekend in Phoenix, and it was their best player who let them down.
Italy gave the Dominican Republic five outs in the three-run seventh inning, one on a foul pop that Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo called for and couldn't chase down. Rizzo also had a terrible at-bat against lefty Juan Cedeno with men on first and third and one out in the fifth inning, striking out on a breaking pitch that was at least a foot outside.
"We made a few bad swings with two strikes,'' Piazza said. "But it's not easy. Those guys (pitching) are good.''
While the Dominican fans chanted and beat drums and noisemakers, their heroes climbed back into the game. Jose Reyes and Cano both hit long home runs off Italian right-hander Tiago da Silva, a 37-year-old who was born in Brazil and speaks five languages. Nifty fact, huh? But what da Silva needed was a deep bullpen, not communication skills.
This time around, it's going to take something special to knock off the Dominicans. Their starting rotation (Volquez, Samuel Deduno, Wandy Rodriguez) seems average but the bullpen is strong, with Fernando Rodney, Santiago Casilla and Pedro Strop at the end.
Because they beat Italy, the Dominicans get a day off before a Thursday game against the Puerto Rico-U.S. winner. Overconfidence will not be a problem, they said.
"Well, you know that we are warriors in this work, and we are here for only one reason, to take the crown back to the Dominican Republic,'' Reyes said. "We know what happened the first Classic. Right now we are playing together. When you have a team that is playing together, you go out the big door.''
With flair, it seems.
Reyes and Cano stood at home plate a long time after their home runs. There were numerous other offenses to baseball's unwritten rules by the Dominicans, who are enjoying themselves on the field.
Off the field?
Cano told a reporter that's none of the media's business. He was smiling when he said it.
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