A walk-off perfecto for Puerto Rico! Well sort of ...

De León ties Classic K record in unofficial perfect game

March 14th, 2023

MIAMI – José De León smacked his glove a few times. He then looked up and took a second to appreciate the raucous crowd at loanDepot park. Shortstop and captain Francisco Lindor put both his hands around De León.

As he walked off the field, De León put his right hand up to salute a crowd full of his people that were thanking him for his effort. De León often thought about what he would do if he got a standing ovation, and that’s just what came out.

It was all deserving for De León, who set a World Baseball Classic record with 5 2/3 perfect frames en route to combining with three relievers to make WBC history by not allowing a baserunner in a 10-0 victory over Israel in eight innings on Monday. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, a no-hitter needs to be at least nine innings in order to be official, so this was technically not a perfect game, but try telling that to the Puerto Rican team.

“I’ve dreamt of a moment like this, to be honest with you,” De León said in Spanish. “With everything that I’ve been through, I needed a moment like this to let the people in Puerto Rico know that I’m still here to stay and I want to show the world that José De León is still here. It was a special moment.”

Yacksel Ríos (one-third of an inning), Edwin Díaz (one inning) and Duane Underwood Jr. (one inning) took care of the rest before the game ended in the eighth when Kiké Hernández hit an RBI single to put Puerto Rico up by 10 runs and end the game via the run-rule. Prior to Monday night, there had been only been one game in the World Baseball Classic when a team did not record a hit, and that came back in the inaugural Classic in 2006, when Shairon Martis of the Netherlands (then just 18 years old) held Panama hitless over seven innings in a 10-0 win that was also shortened because of the mercy rule.

There have been 23 perfect games in Major League history (including the postseason), and none of them have ended on a walk-off hit. However, there have been four no-hitters that ended on a walk-off, with the most recent coming on the final day of the 2013 season, when the Marlins beat the Tigers on a wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth to secure a 1-0 win and a no-hitter for Henderson Alvarez III.

De León represented Puerto Rico during the 2017 World Baseball Classic. At the time, he was a top prospect and had his entire career ahead of him. For a kid from the Caribbean island, he was just thrilled to represent his country. He was already looking forward to doing so for years to come.

Since then, however, De León’s career has been halted by injuries several times. He tore his right UCL during Spring Training in ‘18, a year when he was scheduled to be in the Rays’ starting rotation for the first time in his career. That began a long rehab process for De León, who wasn’t sure at the time when he would pitch again.

After a few setbacks, De León made his way back in ‘19, pitching in three games for the Rays. He was traded to the Reds after the season and things didn’t go well in Cincinnati. De León allowed 29 runs over 24 1/3 innings of work in parts of two seasons with the Reds. He was released in July 2021.

Then the injuries came back. As he started feeling more like himself, De León started experiencing right shoulder pain that prevented him from making any starts in the Majors. Once cleared, however, his sights were set on helping his country win at the World Baseball Classic. He go that opportunity on Monday, and he delivered.

“He’s worked so hard to be in this position,” Puerto Rico manager Yadier Molina said about De León, who struck out 10 to tie a WBC record that was previously held by Ubaldo Jiménez. “Pitching for your country. Pitching in front of your family. I mean, to have this, it’s amazing.”

From the jump, it was clear De León was determined to help Puerto Rico keep its hopes alive in a tough Pool D. He threw 28 four-seam fastballs, looking as electric as ever. His changeup was sharp, getting three whiffs with the pitch. He looked every bit like the pitcher he was before the injuries.

“To the fans that have been following my career, this is for you guys,” De León said. “I know it’s not easy to follow a player with this many injuries and not many opportunities to play on the field. Some people stop believing in you, you know, but I dedicate this to my fans and family, those people that never lost faith in me. … I didn’t lose my faith in myself. This is a big moment, and I dedicate this to them.”

Rios, who later admitted to catcher Martín Maldonado that he had no idea De León retired all 17 batters he faced, relieved the right-hander and retired the only batter he faced in the sixth. Díaz and Underwood followed with a scoreless inning each to complete the eight perfect frames.

The four Puerto Rico pitchers who appeared Monday night pose with catcher Martín Maldonado. (Getty)

Offensively, Puerto Rico also had plenty of help. Javier Báez had his best game of the tournament, going 2-for-3 with two RBIs and a ridiculous stolen base in the first inning. Eddie Rosario chipped in with an RBI double of his own. Francisco Lindor recorded an RBI triple.

It was a complete performance for a Puerto Rico team that now prepares for a Wednesday showdown against rival Dominican Republic (7 p.m. ET on FS1). Puerto Rico is 2-1 in the World Baseball Classic. The Dominican Republic is 1-1 and will take on Israel on Tuesday (7 p.m. on FS1). The top two teams in Pool D, which Venezuela currently sits at the top of with a 2-0 record, will advance to the quarterfinal. Wednesday's matchup will feature another rowdy crowd, perhaps the best one yet in the tournament.

But on Monday, all eyes were finally back on De León. His dream had come true.

“Having a moment like this after all the obstacles that I had to overcome in my career, playing with my family here in the crowd, playing for Puerto Rico, and wearing the Puerto Rican jersey, makes this 100 times more special. This is a dream I’m living. A very special one.”