A long-awaited showdown between Team USA and Team Dominican Republic began as a fiesta for the Dominican-heavy crowd Saturday night in Miami, then turned quiet as the Americans raced out to a 5-0 lead in the World Baseball Classic.By the end of the eighth inning, however, that fiesta was back
A long-awaited showdown between Team USA and Team Dominican Republic began as a fiesta for the Dominican-heavy crowd Saturday night in Miami, then turned quiet as the Americans raced out to a 5-0 lead in the World Baseball Classic.
By the end of the eighth inning, however, that fiesta was back at fever pitch.
Nelson Cruz and Starling Marte each homered off Team USA reliever and 2016 postseason hero Andrew Miller in the bottom of the eighth, part of a four-run frame that completed a wild comeback for the Dominicans. The two blasts -- one to left field and the other to right -- sent the Caribbean fans into a frenzy and spurred the Dominican Republic on to an eventual 7-5 victory that puts the defending champs in line for the top seed in San Diego.
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Holding a 5-2 lead to begin the bottom of the eighth, Team USA manager Jim Leyland turned to Miller, who became one of baseball's major stories last fall by entering games in a variety of different innings to put out fires during the Indians' run to Game 7 of the World Series. But Miller hit Jose Bautista in the leg and allowed an infield single to Indians teammate Carlos Santana to begin his outing Saturday, putting two runners aboard for Cruz.
Cruz, who led the Majors with 127 home runs over the last three seasons, fell behind, 0-2, on two of Miller's patented sliders to the back leg. The Mariners star took the first pitch to see its rotation, then set to work on making contact.
Miller then threw the same slider one more time, but Cruz was ready, turning on the pitch quickly and connecting with an exit velocity of 107 mph and launch angle of 23 degrees. That qualifies as a Statcast™ barrel, according to Statcast™, something Cruz did 68 times last season, second only to Jose Cabrera among big league hitters. Cruz's blast hooked inside the left-field foul pole at Marlins Park, sending the Dominican crowd into a celebration and giving his team a 6-5 lead.
"That's a pitcher who can strike you out," Cruz said of Miller, "so I simply wanted to put the ball in play. Thank God the ball stayed up and was not a foul ball, and what you live through at that moment there are no words to express it."
The decibels were still at maximum level two batters later, when Marte tracked a Miller fastball on the outer half and crushed it the opposite way. Marte barreled the ball as well with a 106 mph velocity and 24 degree launch angle, per Statcast™, launching it a projected 389 feet over the right-field wall to give the Dominicans some insurance.
The homer capped off a three-hit, two-run night for Marte, and together with Cruz, he helped the pair make up for an earlier misplay on a fly ball that keyed a two-run rally in the third for the Americans.
Marte's homer marked only the second time Miller had given up two home runs in the same relief appearance, with the first coming as a member of the Yankees in September 2015. It was also the first time Miller had allowed two homers in the same inning since he was a starter for the Red Sox in July 2011. Even more remarkable for the Dominican Republic: Miller had allowed only 14 batted balls with an exit velocity of 106 mph or greater since the beginning of 2015, per Statcast™, before allowing such blasts to Cruz and Marte in a span of three batters.
The World Baseball Classic runs through March 22. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.