- The Dominican Republic's mighty offense gave it an easy opening win against Canada, while in Japan, Cuba punched its ticket to the second round, and in Mexico, Italy stunned the host nation with a wild ninth inning.
The World Baseball Classic's Pools C and D got started with some big hits and wild rallies, as the Dominican Republic battered Canada in Miami to get its tournament started on the right foot, and Italy came back from four runs down in the ninth against Mexico to pull off the upset on the host nation. Meanwhile, in Japan, the second round of play is set, as Cuba downed Australia to lock up a second-place finish in Pool B.
Dominican Republic's Plantain Power more than enough vs. Canada
Here's the deal: I can either use a lot of words to tell you that the D.R. broke out its big bats against lightweight Canada in a 9–2 win, or I could just post video of Jose Bautista's monstrous three-run homer that busted the game open and let you watch that a few times instead. Deal? Deal.
(Please make note of Canadian catcher George Kottaras's reaction, as he simply gets up and turns to the home plate umpire to ask for a new ball about .001 seconds after Bautista makes contact.)
It was that kind of night offensively for the Dominicans, who homered twice en route to a relatively easy win in the first game of Pool C play. Along with Bautista, who had three hits and four runs driven in on the night, Orioles catcher Welington Castillo also went deep, and Mets third baseman Jose Reyes collected three hits and a stolen base atop the order. Every starter for the D.R. collected at least one hit, with Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre and Pirates leftfielder Gregory Polanco also driving in runs, to back up a strong effort from Cardinals ace Carlos Martinez, who limited Canada to one run (unearned) in four innings, striking out three.
This game was a mismatch from the start, as Canada starter Ryan Dempster—who hasn't thrown a pitch since 2013 and currently works as an analyst for MLB Network—came out of retirement to take the ball for the Great White North but was thrown into the fire of facing this lineup:
Canada did manage to keep it close through the early innings, tacking on a pair of runs on a Martinez balk in the third and a Dalton Pompey RBI double in the fifth. But Bautista's big blast and the support of a raucous Miami crowd armed with inflatable plantains (to match the gold one that Diamondbacks closer Fernando Rodney pulled out of his pants pre-game) ended any hopes of an upset, with Martinez and six relievers (including Rodney, who did his usual Fernando Rodney thing) combining for the win.
The D.R. will now take a day off before the best first-round matchup of the entire tournament: a Saturday night matchup with Team USA, which opens its tournament on Friday against Colombia.
I Sing of Italian Runs and a Walkoff
Mexico looked to have it in the bag. After a back-and-forth–Pool D-opening game against Italy, the host country went into the ninth inning with a four-run advantage and its best reliever, Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna, on the mound. But three doubles, an error, a walk and two singles later, it was Italy celebrating on the field of Guadalajara's Estadio Charros de Jalisco, as Mexico melted down in a 10–9 loss that will probably bring an early end to its hopes of advancing.
This game was a slugfest from the start, with both teams getting on the board via solo home runs in the first and six players going deep. Four Italians took a leisurely stroll around the bases, as did beefy Mexican slugger Japhet Amador, el hijo adulto grande de Mulege. It wasn't a fun night for either starter, with Italy's Alex Maestri getting chased after 3 1/3 frames and Mexico's Yovani Gallardo looking like, well, Yovani Gallardo as he gave up three homers and four runs in his four innings of work. With both teams tied at four after four innings, Mexico broke through in the fifth against switch-pitching reliever Pat Venditte, tagging him for three runs on a bases-loaded walk by Efren Navarro and a two-run double by Luis Cruz. After Italy got one back in the bottom of the fifth (yes, Italy was the home team in Mexico for some reason) on a solo homer by Drew Butera, Mexico tacked on two more in the seventh on a bases-loaded single, giving it a four-run lead.
Joakim Soria and Sergio Romo breezed through the seventh and eighth innings, respectively, to get the ball to Osuna. But before you could say "Tutto e caduto completamente a pezzi," everything completely fell apart for him and Mexico. Fist-pumpin' Frankie Cervelli led off the frame with a double, with pinch-runner Sebastian Poma scoring on Chris Colabello's subsequent two-bagger. A third straight double followed from Mariners prospect Alex Liddi to score Colabello and cut Mexico's lead to two. An error by Cruz and a walk to Drew Maggi loaded the bases and ended Osuna's night, but lefty Oliver Perez was unable to save his teammate or his country. Mets prospect Brandon Nimmo cut the lead to one on a single to right, and then Cubs prospect John Andreoli—who had homered in the first to give Italy its first run—sent the paisans home happy with a single off the glove of second baseman Luis Urias, with the ball trickling far enough into right to score two and win the game.
Believe it or not, this is the second time in WBC history that Italy has upset Mexico; in the last tournament back in 2013, the Sons of Aeneas (or Romulus, depending on what era of Roman or Latin history you prefer and which myths you choose to believe) stunned the Mexicans in the first round as well. That year, Mexico was unable to advance to the second round, and a similar fate likely awaits the team this year, as it now faces two must-win games against powerhouses Venezuela and Puerto Rico, who will face each other to begin their tournament runs on Friday. Italy, meanwhile, will hope for another out-of-nowhere upset to try to advance past the group stage for the first time in team history.
Cuba survives Australia's upset bid to move on to Round 2
Out in Tokyo, the second round of play is now set, as Alfredo Despaigne's grand slam and some clutch relief work helped Cuba narrowly top Australia, 4–3, to clinch second place in Pool B. Trailing early in a tense contest, Despaigne's blow was the only offense Cuba got but the only offense it needed, though the team had to withstand some late rallies by the Dingerin' Dingos to take home the win.
After four scoreless frames to open the game, Australia struck first on an RBI single by Logan Wade, though the Aussies left two on to end the inning. That lost offense immediately came back to haunt Australia, as Cuba made two quick outs in the bottom of the fifth but then loaded the bases on two singles and a walk. That brought up Despaigne, the burly outfielder and a fan favorite in Japan—he plays for NPB's Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks—known as "El Immenso Despaigne" (and with good reason), who had already gone deep earlier in the tournament in Cuba's opening loss to Japan. Against reliever Lachlan Wells, Despaigne worked the count to 2–1, then took a belt-high fastball and demolished it, sending it deep into the leftfield seats of the Tokyo Dome for a 4–1 lead.
Down but not out, Australia quickly rallied, putting runners on the corners with no one out in the sixth, only to see them wasted by a strikeout and a double play. In the seventh, the Aussies tacked on a run on a solo homer by Trent Oeltjen, then added another in the eighth on a Mitch Dening RBI single. That frame saw Australia again put two on, this time with two outs, but Cuban reliever Livan Moinelo was able to strike out Oeltjen to keep it at 4–3. Closer Miguel Lahara then shut the door on Australia's hopes, striking out a pair in a clean ninth to give Cuba the win.
With Cuba taking out Australia, the second round in Japan—aka Pool E—is now set. Along with Cuba, Pool B winner Japan—which took care of China, 7–1, to finish group play undefeated—will move on, joining Pool A winner Israel and runner-up the Netherlands. Pool E play will begin on March 14 at 6:00 a.m. ET, when Cuba and Israel will square off in what I've already dubbed the Hyman Roth Series.