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Nightengale: Puerto Rico Upsets Dominican Republic in WBC and has Blast Doing So

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Puerto Rico's Yadier Molina, center, reacts with teammates after hitting a home run during the sixth inning of a second-round World Baseball Classic game against the Dominican Republic, Tuesday, March 14, 2017, in San Diego. Photo: AP / Gregory Bull

Puerto Rico wasn’t trying to show anyone up, they kept insisting.

They weren’t trying to embarrass anyone, particularly not against a team with so much respect.

But sorry, but when you produce one of the greatest victories in your country’s history Tuesday night, knocking off the Dominican Republic, 3-1, for the first time since 2006 and ending its 11-game winning streak in the World Baseball Classic, who can blame them for acting a little goofy?

Puerto Rico second baseman Javy Baez created the no-look tag on this night, pointing, laughing and gesturing toward catcher Yadier Molina, before he even caught the ball, when Nelson Cruz slid into his glove at second base.

It’s common seeing a player tossing a baseball into the stands at the end of each inning, but not heaving in into the upper deck, as Baez did at the end of the eighth inning.

Players celebrate good plays all of the time, but not by body-slamming everyone on their way to the dugout, falling down in exhaustion, as right fielder Eddie Rosario did after throwing out Jean Segura at the plate in the first inning.

“Why not celebrate?” Puerto Rico shortstop Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians said. “The only way that we could have been able to have this win against the Dominican Republic is with passion, and so much motivation.

“I’m going to celebrate. I’m not disrespecting the game. I’m not trying to disrespect anybody. I’m just going to be myself and I’m going to share with my teammates our success.”

And, oh did they ever savor this one, dancing off the field, with Molina, the team’s heart and soul, wildly waving the Puerto Rico flag in front of 16,637 boisterous fans at Petco Park.

“We beat the champions,” Molina kept repeating. “The Dominicans are the best, and we beat them. We went to play ball, and we went to kill it.

“We executed a great game.”

When you play like that, leading from game from start to finish, suffocating the most powerful offense in the tournament, and putting on an absolute fielding clinic, it would be almost immoral not to celebrate.

“This is what it’s all about,” Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. “There’s a lot of emotion here, and you just let them play. I mean, we let the other team celebrate the way they want, because this is what it’s all about. They’re playing for their country.

“The other teams like the Dominican, they know. They’re not trying to embarrass anybody. They’re just having fun.

“We knew we were confronting a team that was one of the best in the world. It is certainly a cause for celebration.

“This was a motivation to celebrate.”

Oh, indeed it was.

Certainly, the game looked like a mismatch judged by the pitching matchups. The Dominicans were starting powerful Carlos Martinez, who won 16 games last year for the St. Louis Cardinals.

And Puerto Rico?

They were starting Orlando Roman, a reliever who pitches professionally for the Lamigo Monkeys of the Chinese Professional Baseball League.

Puerto Rico was facing a team with the most powerful lineup in all of the land, with the Dominicans hitting .342 in this tournament with a .955 OPS and scoring 26 runs in their first three games of this tournament.

Yet, after Cruz’s home run that tied the game at 1-apiece in the second inning, the Dominican lineup was completely shut down. Four of their first six batters of the game reached base, collecting three hits.

Well, in their final 31 plate appearances of the game, they had only three hits, and were no-hit the final 3 1/3 innings.

The Dominican’s powerful trio of Jose Bautista, Carlos Santana and Adrian Beltre were hitless in 11 at-bats, with four strikeouts and one walk.

It was all enough to make the Dominicans lose their cool. Manager Tony Pena was ejected in the eighth inning by home-plate umpire Will Little, and the game ended with Jean Segura throwing his arms high in the air in disgust after being called out on strikes.

“I’m not going to make a comment,” Pena said, “but you saw the game. So you can decide.”

Then again, instead of faulting Little, Pena knew instead he should be praising Molina. He’s the one who did the magnificent job framing pitchers. He’s the one who coaxed the greatness of his young pitching staff. He is the one who drove in the game’s first run in the first inning, hit an insurance homer in the sixth, and threw out Cruz at second base in the eighth.

“As Yadier Molina goes, the team goes,” Rodriguez said. “He brings so much not only defensively, but he also brings it offensively. The way he handles the pitching, well, we saw tonight.

“We’ve been watching that for years in the big leagues and with Team Puerto Rico.

“He’s definitely the heart of the team.”

Molina, 34, who caught more innings than any catcher in baseball last season, and found himself in the middle of everything Tuesday night.

When the Dominican Republic loaded the bases with none out in the first inning, it was Molina who settled down Roman. Bautista struck out looking. Santana followed with a fly ball to right field, which appeared deep enough for a sacrifice fly, only for right fielder Eddie Rosario to fire a perfect strike to Molina. He easily tagged out Jean Segura for the inning-ending double play, and hopped in excitement all of the way to the dugout.

Roman ran off the field, chest-bumping everyone he could on his way to the dugout, until his body could take no more, and he collapsed, with Molina laughing at the sight.

“That was a game-changer right there,” Molina said. “I mean, obviously, the momentum changed. He got it going. It was all him.”

Not bad for a guy who has yet to have a full season in the big leagues, and only 35 games of experience in right field.

“That’s one of the things that made this game so huge,” Rosario says. “That was my moment in the play of the day. I came back here to play against the Dominican. They never lose.

“It’s everything for Puerto Rico.”

When you have plays like Rosario’s throw, or catches like left fielder Angel Pagan, or the wizardry of third baseman Carlos Correa, no wonder why Baez couldn’t help be bold and brash.

It happened in the eighth inning. Cruz drew a two-out walk, and Puerto Rico first baseman T.J. Rivera didn’t bother holding him on.

Cruz, who had only two stolen bases all of last season, took off running.

“‘Yes, I was surprised,” Molina said, laughing. “But I was hoping for him to go.”

Molina caught the ball, stood up and fired to second. Baez was waiting, animatedly pointing toward Molina with his right hand, and even laughing. The ball hit his glove, and he lowered it to the ground, and didn’t even bother looking as Cruz slid into it for the inning-ending out.

Molina screamed and kept jumping up and down. Baez screamed to the heavens and ran off the field. And launched the baseball all of the way to the upper deck.

“It was fun,” Molina said. “I mean, I was so excited. It was a good game, good play. I had fun tonight.”

And just like that, the Dominican Republic’s streak was over, putting a serious dent into their hopes to repeat as champions.

“This happens,” Pena said. “We’re human beings. We’re not robots. One of those days it was bound to happen.

“We lost this battle, but not the war.”

The Dominicans will play Venezuela on Thursday night, and then the anticipated rematch with the United States on Saturday. They still are a powerful team, but suddenly, they appear awfully vulnerable.

“We are going to return,” Pena said, “and we are going to win. We have a great time. Despite [the loss], lots of people fear the team from the Dominican Republic.

“We didn’t come here to lose, and we will continue to fight. Believe me, we will return.”

Perhaps they will, and maybe by the weekend, Puerto Rico’s glorious night will be dampened, but by the end of this night, Rodriguez had a message to his team.

That early morning workout that was scheduled for Wednesday at Petco Park.

It’s been cancelled.

It was time to party, with no curfew in sight.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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