12:51 AM ET
- David SchoenfieldESPN Senior Writer Close
- Senior writer of SweetSpot baseball blog
- Former deputy editor of Page 2
- Been with ESPN.com since 1995
The two images tell the story of a game, a game that means nothing, a game that means everything. First, we see the Dominican players pouring out of the dugout with the elation of Little Leaguers after Nelson Cruz launched his clutch, three-run, go-ahead home run in the eighth inning off a supposedly unhittable Andrew Miller slider.
"I was like a little kid," Cruz said after the game. "I was jumping up and down, I didn't know what to do."
As he rounded third base toward his waiting teammates and home plate, he swiped his hand across the "DOMINICAN" lettering across his chest. The thousands of loud and raucous Dominican fans at sold-out Marlins Park danced and hugged in the joy of the moment.
The U.S. had led 5-0 behind a brilliant performance from Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman, who looked to be in midseason form with 4⅔ scoreless innings against the powerful Dominican lineup. A misplay in the outfield when Cruz and Starling Marte miscommunicated on a fly ball led to two U.S. runs. Brandon Crawford had knocked in two more, allowing manager Jim Leyland to turn the game over to the strength of the U.S. team, a deep bullpen that included postseason hero Miller waiting to close the game out.
The Dominican team had chipped away on Nationals starter Tanner Roark to cut the lead to 5-3 and Leyland gave the ball to Miller to start the bottom of the eighth — perhaps hoping to get two innings out of the reliever many analysts call the best in the game.
Instead, Miller got only two outs.
Batters hit .164 against Miller’s slider last regular season. When the count got to two strikes, they hit .132 and struck out 65 percent of the time. The count on Cruz was 0-2.
Miller threw another slider, hoping to snap off the same pitch he did on the one-strike slider, with that nasty bite that ends up on the back foot of a right-handed batter. Cruz was waiting for the pitch and when he guesses right, he's deadly. He hit 19 home runs off lefties last season, five more than any other batter. Miller didn't get the pitch to the back foot and Cruz hooked the ball inside the left-field foul pole, reaching the second deck.
An out later, Marte homered for the final 7-5 margin. We saw Miller trudging off the mound, head down, providing the second image that reminds us that the World Baseball Classic is a real thing — though seeing those fans and the happy Dominican players and disconsolate U.S. players should make you aware of that. Miller hadn't allowed four runs in relief since August 2012 — before, as Yahoo's Jeff Passan tweeted, he reached his current dominance.
"The fans never give up, we never give up," Cruz said on his postgame TV spot. "We love baseball. We breathe baseball 24/7 all year round."
Oddly, as good as Miller is, the past three times we've seen him, he's allowed a home run. Dexter Fowler homered off him in Game 4 of the World Series and David Ross homered off him in Game 7. As dominant as Miller was all postseason, he finally faltered in that most crucial game of all. And as unhittable as he can be at times, with that insane 123-to-9 strikeout-walk ratio, he did serve up eight home runs last season, the one knock against him as the game's best reliever.
Now the U.S. faces a precarious position on Sunday, needing a win to assure advancement to the second round. The U.S. and Colombia are both 1-1 while Canada is 0-2. The U.S. plays Canada, with Danny Duffy expected to start, while Colombia plays the Dominican Republic. We could end up with three teams at 2-1 or three teams at 1-2, leading to a possible tiebreaker game Monday. The best-case scenario for the U.S. is to beat Canada and hope the Dominicans beat Colombia.
Aside from all that, I'm just happy the game lived up to the hype. It was exactly the kind of dramatic affair the WBC needed to bring more attention to the rest of the tournament. This game also followed a wild 11-10 win for Venezuela over Italy in extra innings earlier in the day — a game Venezuela needed to win after losing its opener to Puerto Rico.
U.S. catcher Jonathan Lucroy had described this matchup as having the same intensity as a playoff game, citing that it represents a clash of baseball cultures.
"It's going to be an insane environment," he said to the Dallas Morning News. "Those are the kind of environments you live to play for as a player, that playoff-type environment. I know having been in several of them, it's something that you can't replicate anywhere else."
That clash of styles was certainly on display at Marlins Park, and I'm left with the images of the joy of the Dominican team and its fans, and the understanding that we can and should play baseball both ways — with passion and bat flips and smiles as wide as the Caribbean, and with earnestness and respect and pride of hard work. We can, after all, appreciate the diversity of this great game.