MIAMI — I have been in love with the game of baseball for as long as I can remember and I’ve had incredible baseball experiences. I was at the David Bote walkoff grand slam, I had a perfect view of David Ortiz hitting a grand slam to tie the ALCS in 2013 from my seats just on the far side of Pesky’s Pole, I’ve lived in Wrigleyville since 2016 and was one of thousands of people around Wrigley Field when the Cubs finally won it all. There are dozens of moments I’ve cherished at the Friendly Confines, Fenway Park and dozens of other ballparks in my lifetime. So it’s no small thing when I tell you this was a top five baseball experience for me, and the vast majority of my baseball memories fall short of the experience of being at the World Baseball Classic matchup between the Dominican Republic and Venezuela Saturday night at loanDepot park. I remarked to a friend as the crowd roared with two strikes and two outs in the second inning that this felt like a playoff game — in pool play, on the first day of the WBC in Miami.
The atmosphere was electric, and sold out. We were seated next to a Marlins season ticket holder (who also happens to be Triston Casas’ uncle) and he pointed out all the sections that the Marlins never even bother to open in the regular season — they were all filled with fans. I’d put the crowd at about 70/30 Dominican Republic/Venezuela fans. There were flags as capes, flags as skirts, and flags just waving off the railings. There were bongos, cowbells, and half a dozen instruments I’ve never heard of (although air horns and vuvuzelas were banned):
We arrived 40 minutes prior to the game and the concourse was crowded with people heading to their seats.
We walked passed the World Baseball Classic bracket and trophy, which had a long line of people waiting for pictures with the hardware:
I waited 20 minutes to get into a team store to purchase a scorecard and was disappointed to find that scorecards are only available embedded in the $10 program rather than for sale as a standalone item like they are at Wrigley Field. There were also no pencils to be found in the team store, but truly in a sea of baseball joy it was the smallest possible complaint. And, as Al would say, with that, the complaint department is closed.
Both lineups packed an incredible amount of MLB star power. The Dominican Republic lineup could rival most All Star teams. The Venezuelan lineup was nothing to trifle with, however, plus they had the home team advantage of hitting in the bottom half of innings:
The thing that makes the World Baseball Classic even better than an All Star Game, however, is that this is no exhibition game. These players are representing their countries and their community shows up to support them as if it’s a Postseason environment. It felt like an international soccer match collided with the most electric stars in baseball.
To continue the soccer analogy for a second, in every World Cup fans look for the “Group of Death”: The pool that has so much talent it will be agonizing for some talented country to fail to advance out of pool play. While the players representing the United States, Mexico and Colombia certainly have a difficult assignment in Phoenix, the Group of Death for this World Baseball Classic is in Miami, where one of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela will fail to advance. You could feel those stakes just walking to the ballpark on an 81 degree March day in Miami.
When Julio Rodríguez took the count full before singling to left field to lead off the game the crowd roared. Minutes later he was driven in by a Juan Soto double and it felt like the long-expected dominance of the Dominican Republic at this year’s World Baseball Classic was inevitable [VIDEO].
The fan reactions from our corner in right field were everything:
National League Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara started the game for the Dominican Republic and managed a scoreless first inning, however, Anthony Santander decided to make his presence known during this game and he started out with this towering drive to right field that sailed almost directly over our heads into the second deck before bouncing back onto the field [VIDEO].
That was far from the hardest hit ball of the night, but it tied the game at one in the second inning — setting up a unique type of pitchers duel given the World Baseball Classic rules on pitch limits, which vary by round, as summarized in this Sporting News article:
MLB teams have unofficial pitch counts for hurlers to make sure they aren’t being overused. But the World Baseball Classic will have strict limits on how often a pitcher can throw during a game.
Pitchers will be allowed to throw progressively more and more pitchers at each round.
First round: 65 pitches
Quarterfinal round: 80 pitches
Semifinals and championship round: 95 pitches
Pitchers can exceed the limit if they need to finish a plate appearance. Intentional walks will not count against pitch limits.
Relievers face a slightly different set of constraints:
The number of pitches a player throws will have an impact on how long it will be until they can pitch again. Pitchers can only throw on two consecutive days if they don’t throw more than 29 pitches in a previous outing. Pitchers can never pitch on three straight days.
In Saturday night’s game that meant while both starters began the fourth inning, neither saw the end of it. For Martín Pérez, the result was 3⅓ inning pitcheds, giving up four hits and one earned run, striking out four. He was relieved by José Ruiz of the White Sox who got out of the inning unscathed.
Alcantara was in trouble almost as soon as the fourth inning began, giving up a leadoff double to Salvador Perez, then walking Gleyber Torres before allowing a single to Andrés Giménez. And yet, it looked like he might get out of the bases loaded with no outs jam unscathed as Santander popped up to the second baseman followed by this huge strikeout of Eugenio Suárez [VIDEO].
Alcantara was down to his final pitches as David Peralta came to the plate. He was down 1-2 in the count when he flared this single out of reach of Wander Franco at second base — the Venezuelan crowd went wild as the Dominican crowd let out the type of groan that is only possible when tens of thousands of people would do anything in their power to will that Alcantara throw something other than that slider at that particular moment [VIDEO].
That gave Venezuela a 3-1 lead and they never looked back. Luis Garcia of the Astros came in for Venezuela and was dominant, throwing three complete innings while giving up no hits and no runs on two walks and seven strikeouts [VIDEO].
Meanwhile, Venezuela continued to tack on runs. They added one run in the sixth on a David Peralta double and another in the eighth after Santander scored after hitting a triple to the corner and being driven in by Suárez. It was quite the game for Santander and Peralta. Santander also showed off in the field a bit with this exceptional catch to stop the Dominican Republic’s threat to come back in the eighth [VIDEO].
Ultimately, the Dominican Republic was unable to score after their first two hitters combined for their only run of the game. While the Dominican Republic’s pitching staff and bench is certainly deeper, baseball is the greatest sport precisely because upsets like this can, and do, happen. Venezuela secured their first victory in World Baseball Classic history over the vaunted Dominican team and celebrations like the one below echoed through the concourse as we walked out:
That victory may have come with a cost. Venezuela deployed two of their best arms to silence the mighty Dominican bats. They are not the deepest pitching staff in this World Baseball Classic Group of Death, and that pitching depth will surely be tested by a very talented Puerto Rican team tonight. However, for Saturday night, the celebration was on, as you can see from this clubhouse video from Torres:
Whether it was in the clubhouse, in the concourse, or on the streets of Miami, my first World Baseball Classic experience was epic and everything wonderful about baseball.