Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Do You Believe In Miracles?

If you missed the second WBC game between the Netherlands in the Dominican Republic, that’s too bad for you, because you missed the biggest upset in sports history. I don’t make that statement lightly. In surveys about the biggest sports upsets, the event that usually takes the top spot is the USA hockey team defeating the Russian team in the 1980 Olympics. Their stunning victory prompted announcer Al Michaels to carve his niche in broadcasting history with his exuberant “Do you believe in miracles?” Well, what the Netherlands did was a bigger miracle, and I’ll tell you why.

The mismatch in personnel was comparable. In 1980, the USA had a bunch of college kids representing their country, facing the USSR’s conglomerate of professionals from its two biggest leagues, which furnished a bunch of ready-made stars for the NHL later in the decade when it became okay for the NHL to sign Russians. The USSR team had dominated world hockey for a couple of decades, with superior skating, passing, and teamwork thanks to their government forcing the same guys to do nothing but play hockey together year after year. The American college kids, much younger, less experienced, and relatively unfamiliar with each other, did well just to make the finals of the Olympics tournament. But there they were.

The Netherlands team in this year’s WBC tournament faced the same disparity in talent and experience. Only two members of their starting lineup (along with a couple of pitchers) have even played in the major leagues, and neither one (first baseman Randall Simon and right fielder Eugene Kingsale) had done much in the majors. The rest of the team consisted of players who had never played outside of the Dutch league back home or had a little bit of experience in the low minor leagues here. That was it. The best Dutch pitcher, Jair Jurrjens, had declined a spot on the team, and the most formidable hurler in a “Nederlands” uniform was their pitching coach, Bert Blyleven. More than once, announcers jested that Blyleven, at age 57, might have a better chance out on the mound than the kids he was coaching.

The Dominican Republic team, on the other hand, was full of major league All-Stars, including former MVP Miguel Tejada, who moved over from his natural shortstop position to play third base because the team had young studs Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez to play short. The team was projected as one of the favorites to win the whole tournament, but they put themselves in jeopardy by blowing the first game of the tournament, handing the Netherlands three unearned runs in the top of the 1st inning (mainly thanks to a horrible throwing error by Ramirez) and failing to overcome the deficit, losing 3-1. After crushing Panama 9-0 in their second game, they had to face the Dutch again last night, with the loser eliminated from the tournament.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands put a major scare into the host team from Puerto Rico, holding a 1-0 lead in the 8th inning when their bullpen faltered, walking the bases loaded and giving up a pair of hits which netted three runs for Puerto Rico. The 3-1 decision advanced Puerto Rico to the next round and left the Netherlands needing another win.

Let’s put last night’s game into focus. There have been a couple of other upsets in this tournament, notably the Italian team beating Canada, and when a lightly regarded team beats a big favorite, it is sometimes a case of the better team thinking it just has to show up to win, getting careless, and losing focus just enough to fail to make those big plays that matter in any game. That’s what happened to the Dominican Republic in that first game, careless fielding that gave the Dutch a 3-0 lead and an inability to drive in runs when they had a chance. But they’d be geared up for the rematch, and it simply wouldn’t happen again. That’s the first reason why this was a bigger upset than the 1980 Olympic hockey game. The USA hockey game only had to beat the Russians once, not twice.

Watching the game, the mismatch in talent was clear. Dominican starter Ubaldo Jimenez (of the Rockies) faced 13 Dutch batters and struck out 10 of them. They didn’t have a chance against his major-league stuff. Jimenez was followed to the mound by Pedro Martinez, who is struggling to sign with a major-league team so he can prove that he isn’t washed up. For the second time in four days, he mowed the Dutch hitters down for three innings of hitless ball. Through seven innings, the Dutch had exactly two baserunners. By that time, the Dominicans had already left 11 runners on base, including a squandered bases-loaded threat. As they had in the opening game, they had plenty of chances, but couldn’t get the big hit—which is to say that the Dutch pitchers found some way to make good pitches when they counted.

The game moved on, but nobody could push across a run, so the game went into extra innings. The Netherlands was the home team, and it seemed obvious that if the Dominicans scored a run that would do the trick. Going into extras, the Dutch had scored exactly one run in their last 26 innings, and still had only two hits in this game. They weren’t going to touch the Dominicans’ pitching, it was that simple. Every Dutch pitcher who entered the game had a slimmer resume than the one he replaced, and it had to be only a matter of time before they surrendered a run.

But nothing happened in the 10th inning, and into the 11th it went. Dutch reliever got the first two outs by walked Jose Reyes. With Reyes running, Jose Bautista sliced a ball to medium right field. Kingsale charged in, possibly losing the ball in the lights, and attempted a sliding catch, but the ball glanced off his glove and rolled back toward the fence. Reyes scored easily to break the deadlock, and Bautista raced to third on the error. Blyleven visited the mound to calm Boyd down, and he managed to retire dangerous Hanley Ramirez to limit the damage to one run.

But that’s the second big reason why this was a bigger upset than the 1980 hockey game. In that one, the American team was outplayed by the superior Soviet squad, but not by a whole lot, and they had the lead in the 3rd period. All they had to do in the final minutes was hold onto the lead, which isn’t an impossible task in hockey. Teams kill penalties all the time when they’re outmanned, so sitting on a lead is standing practice on the ice. Imagine the 1980 game with the USSR team taking a one-goal lead with two minutes left, and the Americans still winning. Now that would have been a miracle!

That’s the task faced by the Dutch after Reyes scampered across the plate. Now they trailed by a run with only three outs to play with in the bottom of the 11th. Not only that, the Dominicans had saved their bullpen ace, Carlos Marmol, for just such a spot. As the announcers pointed out more than a few times, Marmol is one of the most talented and unhittable relievers in the majors. Last season, against big-time hitters, he recorded 114 strikeouts in 87 innings. In the last two seasons for the Cubs, he has pitched 156 innings and struck out 210 batters, allowing a measly 81 hits with a 2.13 ERA. What chance did the Dutch have? The Dominican pitchers hadn’t allowed an earned run in 28 innings, and now their toughest guy was on the mound. It was like asking the USA hockey team to score two goals in two minutes with two goalies guarding the opposite net.

Yet they did it. First, Dutch manager Rod Delmonico put up a pinch-hitter who hadn’t even appeared in the first two games. Damned if Sidney de Jong didn’t rip Marmol’s pitch into the gap for a double, the team’s fourth hit of the game. The next batter shot a hard ground ball up the middle on which Jose Reyes made a terrific play, nipping him at first while de Jong advanced to third. That brought up Kingsale, whose error had landed his team on the edge of the cliff. After a tough at-bat, he looped a ball to right center which dropped in safely for the game-tying single. That in itself was a miracle, staving off the defeat. Think in terms of the USA hockey team tying the Soviets, forcing an overtime in which anything could happen.

But they weren’t done. Marmol tried to pick Kingsale off but made a wild throw, and Kingsale raced to third with the potential winning run. The batter was their shortstop, a kid named Schoop (I can’t remember his first name) who has been the most helpless hitter on the team. He waved feebly at a Marmol breaking ball to strike out for the fourth time in the game. That brought up Randall Simon, whom the Dominicans elected to walk intentionally, bringing up third baseman Yurendell de Caster, who had made a few key defensive plays in three games but had only one hit in 10 trips to the plate. No problem. He hit a sharp one-hopper to first base, where it clanked off the glove of Willy Aybar and rolled into foul territory. By the time Aybar recovered and threw the ball, de Caster was safe at first and Kingsale had raced across the plate with the winning run.

It was stunning, unbelievable. In the Dominican Republic dugout, the players sat with their jaws at their feet, stunned and disbelieving. In their native country, which has churned out more major leaguers than any country besides the USA, their fans wondered what to do with their tickets and plane/hotel packages for the second round in Miami, now that their team isn’t going anywhere except to disperse back to their major league teams in spring training. Who knows if they’ll even be welcomed back after the season. The term “national disgrace” was floating about the airwaves last night.

And the Dutch play on. Many people forget that the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” gave the USA team the gold medal. That was only the semi-final game, however, and they still had to defeat the team from Finland to win the gold medal. I don’t think anyone is pretending that the Netherlands is going to win this tournament. They have to win a few more games to do that, all against star-studded teams. But they never should’ve gotten this far, scoring their only earned run of the tournament with only two outs separating them from the oblivion now occupied by the Dominicans.

By my reckoning, that makes it the biggest miracle in sports.


Lenny D said...

One advantage the Dutch team had was facing a Cubbie on the mound.

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