Puerto Rico ousts D.R., but mood subdued after Díaz injury

March 16th, 2023

MIAMI -- The spectacle began 90 minutes before first pitch. As the gates opened, a sea of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans filled loanDepot park. 

“Dominicana! Dominicana!” chanted the loud Dominican crowd, banging on drums and playing güira, a popular percussion instrument that originates from the island. 

“Puerto Rico! Puerto Rico!” screams came from another bunch. They, too, banged on drums and jumped up and down as they used a megaphone so their chants could pack an extra punch.

Wednesday’s game between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico lived up to its enormous hype. The level of play on the field was unrivaled. It seems impossible to find another baseball game that had more passion and louder decibel levels coming from the 36,025 fans in the stands.

In the end, it was Puerto Rico that earned a bid into the quarterfinals of the 2023 World Baseball Classic, outdueling the Dominican Republic, 5-2, and setting up a date with Pool C winner Mexico on Friday at 7 p.m. on FS1. The loud party in the stands, however, quickly turned into silence and fear as Edwin Díaz was taken off the field in a wheelchair after suffering a right knee injury during the postgame celebration. The 28-year-old Mets closer will undergo further testing on Thursday.

“Quiet,” Puerto Rico center fielder Kiké Hernández described the postgame clubhouse. “As excited as we were about the game and all, it’s one of our brothers and some of us grew together and all that. … It definitely doesn’t feel like we just beat the Dominican Republic to advance.” 

The postgame scene was as unfortunate as it gets following Díaz’s injury. Francisco Lindor was visibly upset on the field. As was Díaz’s brother, Alexis. There was a sense of disbelief from the Dominican dugout as Robinson Canó and others watched from afar with their hands over their heads.

Díaz’s injury was a very unfortunate way to end what was otherwise some of the best baseball ever played, especially for a game in the middle of March, a time when players are still ramping up for the regular season during Spring Training. 

“There was a lot of energy,” Hernández said. “On paper maybe they had a better team than ours, but we played better. We made it. We advanced and we were able to beat the Dominican Republic.”

Johnny Cueto got the start for the Dominican Republic and he got the crowd on its feet early. He shimmied and threw strikes, as he does, and needed just nine pitches to get through the first inning. In the third, however, the Puerto Rico lineup punched back. 

Christian Vázquez launched a homer off Cueto to lead off the third to give Puerto Rico a 1-0 lead. Lindor and Hernández each followed with RBI singles. MJ Melendez then put the finishing touches on the four-run frame with an RBI groundout to drive in Lindor.

In the bottom half, Juan Soto answered for the Dominican Republic, sending its fans into a frenzy. He launched a solo homer that hit the base of the batter’s eye in center field. The blast traveled 448 feet and had an exit velocity of 110.2 mph.

Puerto Rico, as it did all night, responded. What was supposed to be a routine one-out single to center field turned into a memorable trip around the bases for Lindor. Julio Rodríguez, who later made a spectacular play in center, let the ball get past him, allowing it to roll all the way to the wall. Lindor sprinted around the bases and scored without a throw. He launched his helmet.

“El Apagon,” a song from world-famous artist Bad Bunny, who is from Puerto Rico, blasted through the speakers at loanDepot park. Simultaneously, the Puerto Rican fans in attendance sang along as their team celebrated the Little League homer like kids near home plate.

The Dominican Republic’s best chance at a comeback came in the bottom half of the fifth. Francisco Mejía and Soto drew walks to lead off the inning. Rodríguez followed with a single to load the bases with nobody out. The Dominican Republic had exactly who they wanted at the plate in Manny Machado and Rafael Devers. Machado grounded into a double play. Devers, who went 0-for-9 in the two games vs. Venezuela and Puerto Rico, popped up to end the threat with just one run across.

“I accept all the criticism,” said Dominican Republic’s manager Rodney Linares. “To me the players went out and did their best. Puerto Rico just played a great game. They pitched well, made great plays. There’s nobody to blame.”

There might not be anyone to blame for the D.R., but this will now go down as one of the biggest disappointments in tournament history, but most important, in the history of the country. The ’09 team also failed to get past the group stage after losing to upstart Netherlands twice. This Dominican Republic team was even more talented than the one 14 years ago, but bowed out of the tournament after just four games.

“At the end of the day, one team has to win and another has to lose,” Soto said. “We came here with the right mentality, but the result just didn’t go our way. They played good baseball and sometimes you have to tip your cap and recognize what they did.”

Puerto Rico did everything to win the game. They got timely hitting and unbelievable pitching against a tough lineup. An injury to Díaz was the unfortunate part of an otherwise perfect night for the Puerto Ricans. The streets of San Juan will be talking about this one for a very long time.

“I think this pool raised the importance of this tournament,” Hernández said. “We came away with the team and it’s OK to us that three of the best teams were in the same pool. It was important for us to face them and had to beat the best teams.”