Saturday, March 11, 2017

Hard work, prep preceded Colombia's joy

There's nothing subtle, nothing top secret, about Dayan Diaz's fastball. It's a sledge hammer -- or at least that's how it must have seemed to Jamie Romak.
He swung and missed the 96-mph heater on Saturday afternoon, and just like that there was unparalleled joy in the dugout of Colombia's national team and in sections of the stands at Marlins Park.
Diaz had struck out the veteran outfielder, who represented the tying run, and Colombia had a 4-1 victory over a Canadian team that featured Freddie Freeman and Justin Morneau.
While it didn't quite make up for the win that got away against Team USA in the World Baseball Classic a night earlier, Saturday's contest counted as the biggest victory in the history of Colombian baseball. It was the result of months of masterful preparation by manager Luis Urueta, his staff and his players, who are making the most of the opportunity they gained by winning a 2016 qualifier in Panama.
"We have dreamed of this to represent our country, and in the same way as soccer players who are watched and [unite the people of our country]," said shortstop Donovan Solano, who was with the Marlins in 2012-15 and played briefly for the Yankees last season. "You see the Colombian national team play soccer play elimination games for the World Cup. I think it's a dream for us to represent our country, and for Colombians to follow us and to support us both in Colombia and here."
There were at least as many Colombians as Canadians in the crowd of 17,209, and they spent nine innings ringing cowbells, blowing on noise-makers and doing whatever it took to make themselves heard. They remained as animated as they had been on Friday night, when Jose Quintana and three consecutive doubles gave them a 2-0 lead into the fifth inning against Team USA.
It took 10 innings for the United States to gain a 3-2 victory. Had the Colombians gotten a big hit late in the game -- they had a man on third with two outs in the eighth before Pat Neshek ended the threat with a strikeout -- they could be 2-0 in Pool C and set to advance to San Diego for the second round.
Urueta compared the near-miss against Team USA to the feelings after Miss Colombia was mistakenly awarded the Miss Universe crown by Steve Harvey before having it taken back and put on the head of Miss Philippines.
"Yesterday was just to show that we play baseball," Urueta said. "When a mistake was made with Miss Universe, and they awarded the crown to the other one, it made [Miss Colombia] more famous. I think last night the same thing happened to us. We also lost, and I think we are more famous for that reason.''
Braves ace Julio Teheran got Colombia started against Canada, just as Quintana had done the early heavy lifting against Team USA. But Urueta's lineup includes no players who are expected to be on Major League teams when the season begins next month, so he and his staff have done yeoman's work in making the best use of players like Solano, second baseman Adrian Sanchez and center fielder Tito Polo.
Teheran was terrific. He allowed a first-inning run on Freeman's single but nothing else while working five innings.
Urueta doesn't have another Quintana or Teheran on his roster, so the Colombia pitching staff seems likely to quickly be stressed.
"Tomorrow we will come out to play and to focus and to give 100 percent of us, regardless of who is playing," Solano said. "I know that we will all enjoy that game against the Dominican Republic."
Why not? They're playing with house money after a historic victory and a defeat they will speak of proudly throughout their lifetimes.

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