The Dominican Republic got one step closer to punching its ticket to the second round of the World Baseball Classic on Saturday, besting the United States in a highly anticipated clash of two Pool C titans.
With back-to-back home runs from Nelson Cruz and Starling Marte in the eighth inning, the Dominican Republic stormed back from a five-run deficit and stayed unbeaten in the tournament with a 7-5 win in Miami. The game was played before a raucous, sold-out crowd of 37,446, establishing a new record for Marlins Park. The ballpark's previous high was 37,116 on Opening Day in 2014.
"The fans never left the game," Cruz said, "and I know that there are many people who traveled from many parts of the Dominican Republic and from the United States just to watch this game, and I'm always thanking God that he gave us the opportunity for them to leave happy, that their trip was worth it."
The win improves Dominican Republic to 2-0 in Pool C and extends its Classic winning streak to 10 games. The reigning champions are now 16-4 all-time in the tournament and are in prime position to claim the top seed for the second round in San Diego.
The U.S. (1-1) now enters Sunday's evening matchup with Canada (7 p.m. ET on MLB Network and MLB.TV) in need of a win or a Colombia loss to the Dominicans (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET on MLB Network and MLB.TV) to keep its tournament hopes alive. With the Dominican Republic being the only two-win team in Miami, all four Pool C countries are still in play for the second round.
Despite a stellar performance from starter Marcus Stroman, the U.S. bats went cold and the bullpen squandered a 5-0 lead as the Dominican team scored seven unanswered runs.
"We faced a pitcher that was difficult. He was tough," Dominican manager Tony Pena said. "When they took him out in the fifth inning, then we exhaled. We were able to capitalize.
"As I always say, baseball is a box of surprises. You have to play 27 outs, and until you get to 27 outs, there is still a ballgame."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Cruz, Marte go back-to-back: Facing one of the best relievers in baseball in Andrew Miller, the Dominican Republic vaulted past the U.S. in the eighth with back-to-back home runs from Cruz and Marte. Miller began the inning by plunking Jose Bautista and yielding a single to Carlos Santana. Cruz, who ranks first in the Majors with 127 home runs over the last three seasons, brought everyone home and ignited the crowd with a three-run blast to left field. Marte then took Miller deep the opposite way on the very first pitch he saw, adding an insurance run and atoning for his earlier fielding gaffe.
"You give that kind of lineup some hope and opportunity, they got a chance to hurt you," Team USA manager Jim Leyland said.
With an exit velocity of 107 mph and a launch angle of 23 degrees, Cruz's homer qualified as a barrel, per Statcast™. The Mariners slugger had 68 such hits last season, putting him second only to Miguel Cabrera in the Majors.
Defensive miscues hand U.S. early lead: A pair of defensive mistakes by the Dominican Republic helped the United States take an early 2-0 lead in the third inning. It started when first baseman Santana couldn't haul in an accurate throw from Robinson Cano, allowing Ian Kinsler an infield hit on what may have been an inning-ending out.
Team USA's next batter, Adam Jones, sent a deep fly ball out between Dominican outfielders Marte and Cruz. An Miscommunication between Cruz and Marte resulted in the ball falling in and out of Cruz's glove for an error, allowing Kinsler to score the game's first run.
"Well, look, when you're playing before a crowd as the one today, you lose communication," Pena said. "So what happened, they called for the ball, but they could not hear each other, and that happens all the time in the game."
Manny's moment: Orioles star Manny Machado fired up the Dominican faithful with a towering solo shot in the sixth inning. Machado's home run launched off his bat at 109.5 mph and traveled 435 feet, per Statcast™, which would have been his fifth-longest homer of 2016.
Machado's homer put the Dominican Republic on the board and helped sparked a seven-run comeback.
"The other team was playing one heck of a game, so I was trying to do something for the team, to get it started," Machado said. "I know that we are a better team, but started bad. But our fans gave us their support and we kept going ahead nonstop after that.
STROMAN STIFLES DOMINICAN BATS The Blue Jays right-hander tossed 4 2/3 scoreless innings. He allowed just three hits and struck out four batters, including Toronto teammate Bautista.
"I don't know that I've ever seen anybody more determined than he was tonight," Leyland said. "I mean, he wanted it. He wanted to get it, and he did. He did an absolutely unbelievable job."
Stroman finished with 64 pitches, one shy of the first-round maximum, meaning he is not eligible to pitch in the tournament again until Thursday.
QUOTABLE "Maybe a game against Detroit, home runs in the World Series, but I think that the flavor, the taste of this one is more special because you're playing for your country, no matter what team you play, the people are supporting you. In the U.S., when you play the game, it is like a business. When you leave, people forget about you. But when you play for the Dominican Republic, the fans always support you." -- Cruz, on how Saturday's home run compares to others throughout his career.
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS Saturday marked the first time Miller had allowed multiple home runs as a reliever since Sept. 22, 2015, while with the Yankees. He hadn't surrendered two home runs in the same inning since July 26, 2011, when he was a starter for the Red Sox.
WHAT'S NEXT Team USA: The Americans could have clinched a second-round appearance with a win Saturday, but instead, they'll enter Sunday's matchup against Canada with their tournament future very much unknown. The Pool C finale is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET on MLB Network and MLB.TV.
"We battled our tail off tonight, and we'll battle our tail off tomorrow," Leyland said. "I don't expect anybody with their head down."
Team Dominican Republic: The Dominicans control their own fate. They can sweep Pool C and advance to San Diego on Sunday by defeating Colombia at 12:30 p.m. ET on MLB Network and MLB.TV.