MIAMI — Though he was standing on a raised, red-dirt plot of American soil, with “USA” emblazoned across his chest, everything that confronted Andrew Miller on Saturday night must have felt foreign, surreal and a little dangerous. The atmosphere around the hotly anticipated U.S./Dominican Republic showdown in the World Baseball Classic felt less like a baseball game than a World Cup match, the setting less like Florida than Santo Domingo, and the nine Dominican hitters in the opposing dugout less like a lineup than a firing squad.
Nobody in America is supposed to care about the WBC, and outside of Marlins Park, perhaps few did. But on a Saturday night in March, inside the sleek stadium in Little Havana, this tournament delivered a game, an atmosphere and a moment that could hold its own against the best of October baseball. It had the victorious Dominican players streaming out of their dugout, Miller cursing under his breath, and a sellout crowd made up largely of Dominican fans creating an unholy noise that literally shook the stadium.
All the Dominicans had to do to escape with a 7-5 victory was mount a four-run rally against arguably the best relief pitcher in the game — the great Miller, the indefatigable bullpen ace of the 2016 postseason, an often unhittable lefty who hadn’t given up four runs in an outing in more than four years.
Holding a 5-3 lead as he entered the game in the eighth, Miller, whose brilliant performance for the Cleveland Indians pushed that team to the brink of the World Series nearly five months ago, surrendered a three-run homer to Nelson Cruz and a solo homer to Starling Marte to send the Americans to a staggering loss in a game in which it had led almost the entire way. At each swing of the bat, the Dominican players swarmed out of their dugout to greet their teammates at the plate.
“We had our shot,” Team USA Manager Jim Leyland said. “We got a two-run lead and had Andrew Miller coming in.”
A stadium-record crowd of 37,446 — of which perhaps 80 percent were Dominican fans — packed into Marlins Park for a game that had been sold out for weeks. A good number of them brought drums, horns and anything else that made noise, and they unleashed all of it toward Miller as the game reached its climax in the eighth. A hit batter and a groundball single up the middle preceded Cruz’s go-ahead homer, which barely stayed inside the left field foul pole.
The mighty Dominicans have now won 10 straight WBC games, eight of them coming during their undefeated march to the title in 2013. The Americans, meanwhile, have never finished better than fourth place in three previous WBCs, dropping to 11-11 overall with Saturday’s loss. Both the U.S. and Dominican Republic are likely to advance to the second round out of Pool C, with the championship game scheduled for March 22 at Dodger Stadium.
The Americans had led by as many as five runs, thanks largely to a superb 4 2 /3 inning start from Marcus Stroman. But Washington Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark gave up three runs in an unsteady, abbreviated outing of 1 1 /3 innings that included a solo homer by Manny Machado — an American of Dominican descent who went to high school a few miles from Marlins Park but chose to play for his ancestral homeland.
The WBC remains plagued by a disconnect between the passion and drama produced on the field and the indifference that greets the tournament domestically, and Team USA is the biggest victim of that gap.
While the U.S. team did without the quartet of hitters who swept the past four MVP awards (Mike Trout and Kris Bryant in 2016, Josh Donaldson and Bryce Harper in 2015) — all of whom declined invitations to join Team USA — the Dominican lineup was a murderer’s row packed with a former batting champ (Jose Reyes), home run champs (Cruz, Jose Bautista, Adrian Beltre) and mere all-stars.
The trickle-down of American indifference toward the WBC begins in the front offices, where general managers are hesitant to donate their best and often most expensive players to a cause that has little or nothing to do with winning a World Series — a risk driven home by the apparent knee injury suffered by Venezuelan Salvador Perez, the Kansas City Royals’ all-star catcher, on Saturday night in another WBC game. It extends to many of the top American players in the game, who told Team USA officials — whether fully of their own volition or with a nudge from their teams — thanks but no thanks.
And by all accounts, it is shared by American fans, who gorge themselves on big league baseball from February to October and view the WBC largely as a curiosity, rather than the epic, international extravaganza it is considered in Latin America and Asia.
But there was no better advertisement for the WBC than the game that was played at Marlins Park on Saturday night. Nobody had to explain to the ecstatic Dominicans or the despondent Americans why they should care about it. And if no one else across this country was moved by what happened, then perhaps there is nothing more that can be done.