Surprising Netherlands Prepares for Second Round of WBC

Netherlands baseball player Gene Kingsale, center, shouts for joy after scoring the winning run against the Dominican Republic in the bottom of the 11th inning on Tuesday. The Dutch eliminated the Dominican by beating it twice.
Netherlands baseball player Gene Kingsale, center, shouts for joy after scoring the winning run against the Dominican Republic in the bottom of the 11th inning on Tuesday. The Dutch eliminated the Dominican by beating it twice. (By Fernando Llano -- Associated Press)

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By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 14, 2009

MIAMI -- Within minutes of checking into the team hotel here after Thursday's short flight from Puerto Rico, Netherlands pitcher Juan Carlos Sulbaran wandered through the lobby in sandals and a fashionable print shirt, eager to jump into the vehicle that would take him to a reunion with some former teammates.

Like a handful of players on the Dutch team's roster, Sulbaran played ball last year in the United States, and his team's unexpected advancement to the second round of the World Baseball Classic -- thanks to a pair of stunning upsets of the Dominican Republic -- gave him the chance to hang out with his old clubhouse pals.

From a South Florida high school.

Less than a year removed from leading American Heritage Senior High to a state title, Sulbaran, 19, has been one of the leading overachievers on a team full of them. The Netherlands hopes to continue its surprising run in the second round beginning Saturday against Venezuela at Dolphin Stadium. The United States meets Puerto Rico later that night.

Among other highlights, Sulbaran struck out Puerto Rico's Iván Rodríguez, a major league veteran and clutch hitter, on three pitches with two men on in the Dutch team's 3-1 loss Monday. He also got Carlos Beltrán to hit into an inning-ending groundout with the bases loaded.

Relying on 28 ballplayers mostly from the Dutch major leagues and low minor leagues in the United States, the Netherlands has dumbfounded the baseball world. Only a handful of players invoke any name recognition: Sidney Ponson, Randall Simon, Gene Kingsale and Rick VandenHurk. Of that group, only Ponson and VandenHurk made big league appearances last year. The most famous, Ponson, has a 90-106 career record and 4.95 ERA with six big league teams -- including the Baltimore Orioles -- over 11 seasons.

He is 32 and currently looking for a job.

Sulbaran, drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 30th round last June, has never played in a professional game at any level. A team official estimated the entire Dutch roster combined to earn a salary of about $400,000 last season, an average of just over $14,000 per player.

"The whole thing," said pitcher Alexander Smit, who played last summer for the Reds' Class A Sarasota team, "has been a crazy story."

The craziness began when players gathered around a mound in mid-February in Bradenton, Fla., for the opening of camp. Dutch Manager Rod Delmonico, who coached at the University of Tennessee for 18 seasons, began his talk by telling players they should start dreaming about scoring the winning run or making a game-saving defensive play to secure an upset of tournament favorite Dominican Republic, the Dutch team's opening opponent.

"I told them, 'This is goofy stuff, but I'm telling you, if everybody here believes we can beat them, we're stronger,' " Delmonico said.

Delmonico also pulled aside the team's two most veteran players, Ponson and Simon, a first baseman, and informally anointed them team captains. He told them if they bought in to the hard work and team concept, their young teammates would follow.


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