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Classic exceeds billing on Super Saturday

Dominican Republic comeback vs. US, Italy-Venezuela thriller among highlights
MLB.com @philgrogers

MIAMI -- How great of an idea was the World Baseball Classic?

Ask anyone who was at Marlins Park on Saturday night. Or at the gleaming Estadio Charros De Jalisco outside Guadalajara, Mexico. Or those who spent their Saturday watching the action from both venues.

MIAMI -- How great of an idea was the World Baseball Classic?

Ask anyone who was at Marlins Park on Saturday night. Or at the gleaming Estadio Charros De Jalisco outside Guadalajara, Mexico. Or those who spent their Saturday watching the action from both venues.

From the biggest win in the history of Colombian baseball to unbeaten Israel defeating Cuba, 4-1, with Nelson Cruz's line-drive homer off Andrew Miller and Italy's wild comebacks in the eighth and ninth innings against a favored Venezuela team desperate for a victory in between, this was a day beyond what anyone would have dreamed about when the Classic was launched in 2006.

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

And the good news is, it's just getting started.

The frenetic atmosphere at Marlins Park was worthy of a championship game, but that won't be played until March 22 at Dodger Stadium. This was only Round 1, hard as that is to believe.

There are five more games on the Classic schedule Sunday (on MLB Network and MLB.TV), and the two at Marlins Park will help determine which of two teams among the Dominican Republic, the United States, Canada or even Colombia advances to San Diego.

• Tiebreaker scenarios for Pool C

Among the intriguing possibilities? Ryan Dempster pitching on two days' rest after his first start in more than three years. Somebody like Alex Bregman or Josh Harrison coming off Jim Leyland's bench to turn into an igniter. And maybe even results that trigger a Monday tiebreaker.

If Canada can shock Team USA and three teams wind up 1-2, we'll have to break out our calculators to see how the teams compare in defensive runs allowed per inning played.

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.

It's hard to see how you can get better, more dramatic baseball than the Dominican Republic and Team USA played Saturday.

Down, 5-0, in the sixth inning, after Marcus Stroman became Leyland's new favorite pitcher, the relentless Dominican hitters rallied for a 7-5 victory before the biggest (37,446) and certainly most boisterous crowd ever at Marlins Park.

Fanatical fans following the Dominican Republic far outnumbered those supporting Team USA, but really it didn't matter which side you were on. This was a happening and players seemed every bit as into the action as those in the stands.

Video: USA@DOM: Machado crushes a solo shot to left-center

Stroman, who threw 4 2/3 scoreless innings, compared the intensity in the stands to what he experienced with the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre for the American League Wild Card Game against the Orioles in October. The difference was the flavor of Latin America.

While the game was played on American soil, the crowd made it feel like it was being played in Santo Domingo.

"Absolutely,'' Stroman said. "Their crowd travels. It's very Dominican heavy. It's not like your normal crowd. You've got a lot of horns, sirens and all that going on. It's a fun environment. I love pitching in an environment like this.''

Video: USA@DOM: Stroman dazzles over 4 2/3 scoreless frames

When Leyland arrived at Marlins Park on Saturday afternoon, he was as nervous as he's probably been before a game since the Tigers went to the 2012 World Series, and on Saturday he couldn't even get into his office.

Luis Urueta, the skipper of Colombia, was still in the visiting clubhouse at Marlins Park, celebrating his team's 4-1 upset of Canada (led by Freddie Freeman and Justin Morneau). As the equipment men moved one team's gear out of the locker room and another team's in, Leyland paced the corridor leading to the dugout, running through his pitching plans for the game against the Dominican Republic.

His choices were limited by having used six relievers in the 10-inning, ulcer-inducing win over Urueta's surprisingly tough team on Friday. He didn't use the Indians' Miller but twice warmed him up, and was worried about that. Leyland was worried about everything, pretty much.

Video: USA@DOM: Leyland on a tough loss for the USA

His worst fears turned into a real life monster in the eighth inning of the most highly anticipated World Baseball Classic game in the event's history. Leyland brought Miller in to get the last six outs and watched Cruz and Starling Marte blast home runs, triggering a dance festival between the Dominican Republic dugout and home plate.

Team USA had been rolling, somewhat softening the crowd (but by no means quieting it), but Tanner Roark, David Robertson and Miller couldn't hold it against a lineup that would give the '27 Yankees a run for their money. The Dominican Republic is now 10-0 in World Baseball Classic play since losing to the Netherlands in 2009.

Manny Machado's monstrous home run that seemed headed for South Beach awakened the Republic and its legion of fans, and the Cruz homer was almost a carbon copy of Rajai Davis' game-tying shot off Aroldis Chapman in the World Series -- except this one actually settled the score, leaving Cruz momentarily unsure of how to react.

"Even in Little League when you are a little kid, you get so emotional that you don't know what to do at that moment,'' said the Mariners slugger. "First you have to keep calm in situations like that and to thank God, because he gave me the opportunity to hit that home run. For us as players and for the fans that are here, but maybe for the whole of the Dominican Republic. I know that they were with us. The whole country stopped and is watching us. So in the end it was huge.''

Video: USA@DOM: Dominican players discuss beating the USA

If you have a pulse, you have to feel for Leyland, the skipper who is trying to help Team USA gain some level of distinction in an event it was once expected to dominate. But his pain, in this case, is the sport's gain.

We can't say the same about the knee injury that Royals catcher Salvador Perez suffered when Kansas City teammate -- and Classic opponent -- Drew Butera rolled into him to score the tying run for Italy in Mexico. Perez had to be helped off the field, and he is out of the tournament despite reports that he escaped major damage.

Video: VEN@ITA: Italy ties game in 9th, K-Rod and Perez hurt

A fear of injury and fatigued arms has kept many team executives from being more enthusiastic about the Classic, which was kicked off in 2006 and being held for the fourth time this month. But when players spend time with their countrymen (or their grandparents' countrymen, in some cases) they carry themselves with pride and passion on the field, and the game benefits.

There's no half-timing it down the baselines, as fans who watched on Saturday can attest. With the Mets' Brandon Nimmo and the Cubs' John Andreoli playing leading roles, Marco Mazzieri's Italians twice came back in the late innings to force extra innings before falling, 11-10, to Venezuela.

Video: VEN@ITA: Prado knocks a go-ahead double in the 10th

Perhaps Italy just had a heartbreaking loss coming after its WBC '17 opener, when it beat Mexico, 10-9, with a five-run ninth inning.

That's the way teams roll in this international emotional roller coaster of an event. Colombia, with zero Major Leaguers in its lineup, shouldn't be able to stay on the field with the Dominicans. Team USA should handle Canada easily behind Royals lefty Danny Duffy. But why draw any conclusions?

Let's just cut the grass, line the fields and leave a clean, white baseball on the pitcher's rubber. That's the formula for a new kind of March madness.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

United States, Venezuela, Canada, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Italy