The winning manager called it "a miracle." The losing manager said it was "something that we never imagined."The scoreboard at Estadio Hiram Bithorn in San Juan, Puerto Rico, read Netherlands 2, Dominican Republic 1. The team loaded with Major League All-Stars and expected by many to win the 2009 World
The winning manager called it "a miracle." The losing manager said it was "something that we never imagined."
The scoreboard at Estadio Hiram Bithorn in San Juan, Puerto Rico, read Netherlands 2, Dominican Republic 1. The team loaded with Major League All-Stars and expected by many to win the 2009 World Baseball Classic was done, knocked out of the first round. The team with the orange caps expected to lose badly in three consecutive games was mobbing Eugene Kingsale at home plate, ready to head to Miami for Round 2.
Eight years later, as we embark on yet another World Baseball Classic year, we celebrate this #ThrowbackThursday with a look at the most memorable upset in the history of the tournament. The Netherlands, those plucky practitioners of hellacious honkbal, beat a loaded Dominican team not once but twice in that unforgettable first round, and eight years later, the success stories -- and the scars -- are still evident.
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:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::
Seattle Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz was biding his time on an otherwise nondescript Spring Training day when a reporter with whom he's very familiar began asking questions. As soon as Cruz heard the words "2009 World Baseball Classic," he laughed and said, "I don't remember anything about that year."
Cruz does remember, of course. He remembers plenty. He remembers a Dominican team that featured speedsters Jose Reyes and Willy Taveras, big league sluggers David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Bautista, Robinson Cano, Miguel Tejada and Jose Guillen, and a pitching staff stocked with a young Ubaldo Jimenez, Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez plus an aging but still-effective Pedro Martinez and a bullpen with Major Leaguers Carlos Marmol, Damaso Marte and Julian Tavarez. Cruz might even remember the fact that he batted eighth on that team.
But even more than the shock of coming up short in games that should have been afterthoughts, the events of March 2009 bring about another timeless reminder of "a good thing about baseball," as Cruz now admits.
"Anyone can beat you on any day," he said. "Even the best teams lose games."
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During the games, Jim Stoeckel didn't have the best view of the action. As the Netherlands team's bullpen coach, he was stuck in the left-field corner of the utilitarian yard with the bouncy AstroTurf field that had already hosted many international events. He also didn't have a clue how the games might turn out.
But Stoeckel, who's now the director of global scouting for the Cincinnati Reds, knew a few things.
Stoeckel knew the team, which pulled from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, including the baseball-rich island nations of Curacao and Aruba, had talent. It had a veteran core of position players with some Major League experience in Randall Simon, Kingsale and a couple of touted prospects in big-armed catcher -- yes, back then he was a catcher -- Kenley Jansen plus outfielder Gregory Halman and infielder Hainley Statia.
The Netherlands also had some arm potential and some added motivation. Veteran big leaguer Sidney Ponson, the burly Aruban right-hander, was looking to rebound and catch on with a club in late Spring Training after a rough 2008 season that had his Major League future looking dim. The Dutch staff also had young Minor League pitchers with good stuff, including Rick van den Hurk (Marlins system), Juan Carlos Sulbaran (Reds) and hard-throwing 20-year-old Tom Stuifbergen (Twins).
Stoeckel saw a manager, American baseball lifer Rod Delmonico, who knew how to get a team loose and ready to play, and a pitching coach, Holland-born future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, who was universally respected. And he was well aware that this club, which had in large part been playing together for the better part of a decade, had international experience against excellent teams such as Cuba and Japan and would at the very least not be intimidated.
"We knew the Dominicans were very good," Stoeckel said. "But I thought our pitching staff could hold them down, that maybe they wouldn't score a lot of runs. We knew we had some pretty good guys and that if they throw strikes, we'd be in this thing.
"But we knew we wouldn't score a lot, either."
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On March 7, 2009, before a crowd of 9,335 at Hiram Bithorn, the Netherlands did what it had to do right away, taking advantage of two singles, a wild pitch and two Dominican errors to take a 3-0 lead. Ponson went four-plus innings and held the Dominicans to two runs on five hits, and the bullpen took care of the rest. Jansen was a revelation behind the plate, throwing out tying run Taveras at third base in the bottom of the ninth with the powerful right arm that would eventually close games for the Dodgers.
It was a stunning win, to be sure, but in the context of a long tournament with a double-elimination first round, the Dominicans still had plenty of time to right themselves from what appeared to be a one-time fluke, and the Dutch still had plenty of time to falter.
"I just remember going pitch by pitch, inning by inning, kind of saying, 'Is this really happening?'" Stoeckel said. "All of a sudden, the game's over and we beat the Dominicans. It was a bit of a shock, but not to the Dutch players.
"Still, you're thinking, 'We still gotta win one more game.'"
Fortunately for the Dutch team, Delmonico had already prepared the players with a nothing-to-lose attitude and a heady game-time strategy.
"He told us that we just have to play out by out," Kingsale said now via phone from Aruba. "He figured we could catch them napping, maybe take a lead, and by the time they realized what was happening, the game would be over. And it worked."
But would it work again?
It didn't necessarily seem like it after the Dominicans came back the next day to steamroll Panama, 9-0, while the Netherlands took a one-run lead into the eighth inning against talented Puerto Rico and lost that one, 3-1. Heading into the rematch on March 10, now an elimination game, the Dominicans were now wide awake, angry, and eager to knock out the Netherlands and the notion that the March 7 upset was anything more than a humorous answer to a trivia question. But the Dutch were ready, too.
"I always said that if you do something once, you can do it again," Simon said heading into the game. "So why not? Why not today? Why not make it today? So that's what we have been doing, giving it everything we got. I think we always have to have a chance."
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Stuifbergen was only 20 years old, but he was also 6-foot-4 and at least 250 pounds and threw a fastball in the mid- to high-90s. He might have only had 12 1/3 innings of professional experience in Rookie ball the previous season, but he also didn't seem to care about any of that when the lights went up for the elimination game vs. the mighty Dominican team.
Stuifbergen struck out Ortiz to end a scoreless inning, bounded off the Hiram Bithorn mound and into the Dutch team's dugout, and he made an announcement to his teammates.
"I'm dropping Big Papi from my fantasy team," Stuifbergen said. "Because he can't hit."
Truth be told, the Dutch couldn't hit that day, either. Jimenez struck out 10 in four sensational innings, and the game remained a 0-0 tie until the 11th inning. The Dominicans seized the lead and the momentum in the top of that frame when Reyes worked a two-out walk and scored when Bautista's sinking line drive got past Kingsale in right for a costly error.
But the Dutch had some life left, and it showed in the bottom of the 11th. Catcher Sidney de Jong pinch-hit for Jansen and doubled off Marmol. Pinch-hitter Curt Smith's groundout pushed de Jong to third. That brought up Kingsale, who was dying for a chance at redemption and delivered, singling to right to tie the game and then moving to third on an errant pickoff attempt by Marmol.
With two outs, infielder Yurendell de Caster hit a ground ball to first baseman Willy Aybar. It looked like an inning-ending play, but Aybar booted it and Kingsale scampered home to a mob.
The Netherlands had done it. Twice. The great Dominican team was headed home.
"If you matched the teams player by player, their top guys would overpower us," Kingsale said now. "But we had bats, too. We had gloves, too. We had balls, too. And we played as a team. When you do that, you can win."
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Kingsale said he can still hear it, even eight years later.
"Any time I see a Dominican player from back in the day, they'll say I'm an enemy of their country," he said with a laugh. "It was very special. I played for four teams in the Major Leagues, I played in the Olympics and I played in the World Baseball Classic.
"Scoring that run was one of the biggest moments of my career."
And on the losing end, Cruz, who's once again set to represent his nation in the 2017 Classic, says the '09 defeat turned out to be an incredibly educational one for the team moving forward.
The Dominicans, after all, went 8-0 in the 2013 tournament to win their first Classic title.
"I was the first one to stand up and say, 'We have to make sure that doesn't happen again,'" Cruz said. "'Whatever we need to do, just focus even more or whatever it is, we need to get better. We shouldn't allow that to happen.'
"I guess it worked out pretty good because we had better chemistry. It felt like we were together."
The World Baseball Classic runs from March 6-22. In the U.S., games will air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN will provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. will have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. Internationally, the tournament will be distributed 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, Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, 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.
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB.