By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
MIAMI _ In these uncertain times we live in, it was confusing:
Andrew Albers thought maybe he was at an all-star game.
Ryan Dempster had travelled back in time to standing on a south Florida mound again. Just as he had 2000, the year he set a Florida Marlins franchise record with 209 strikeouts.
It was a game that appeared over after 26 outs with Fernando Rodney walking off the mound and the second out of the ninth and shooting his imaginary arrow into the air.
And Jose Bautista thought he was in Quisqueya stadium ... Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, also known as the country’s Yankee Stadium.
When the dust cleared, Albers was correct, Dempster was returned to his present time frame, Jeurys Familia fanned Josh Naylor for the final out and Bautista’s ears had fooled him as the defending champion Dominican Republic thumped Canada 9-2 Thursday night before 27,388 fans in the opener of the Miami pool of the fourth World Baseball Classic.
Dominican supporters took over the facility on Little Havana wearing blue, red and white jerseys and DR caps. They waved their nation’s flag, banged drums, sounded horns and chanted to a Latin beat. Many fans carried thunder sticks shaped as green plantains. Even shy reliever Rodney flashed one during pre-game introductions.
Bautista was right. It has been a while since we have been to Quisqueya -- home of both Leones Del Escogido and Tigres Del Licey, the two most popular teams in the Dominican winter ball -- but it was MetroDome noisy. We once saw Moises Alou, now the GM of the Dominican team, throw out a runner at the plate and Felipe Alou, his father, come out of the other dugout to argue the play.
Dempster started against the powerful Dominican lineup and admitted he kept “waiting for the pitcher to hit. He never did and that got really tough.”
After a seven-pitch at-bat resulted in a lead-off double to Jose Reyes, Dempster escaped the first unscathed in a 22-pitch first, an inning he described as “Very Dempsteresque.” He gave up a one-out, run-scoring single to Gregory Polanco on an 0-2 pitch, then a second row homer to Willington Castillo on an 0-1 pitch and another run on a Bautista single. Dempster was done after two innings and 49 pitches with Canada down 4-0.
LHP Albers took over and restored order facing a team which had 13 players back from the defending champion 2013 roster. He pitched two scoreless innings, allowing one hit. The best lineup he had seen since ...? “Maybe an all-star game,” Albers said.
Six of the first seven hitters in manager Tong Pena’s lineup -- shortstop Jose Reyes, third baseman Manny Machado, second baseman Robinson Cano, left fielder Jose Bautista, first baseman Carlos Santana and right fielder Nelson Cruz -- combined for 22 all-star appearances, 14 Silver Slugger awards, seven Gold Gloves, three stolen base titles (Reyes), as well as one Rookie of the Year honors (Reyes), a batting title (Reyes), 22 top 10 MVP finishes (Beltre six, Cano five, Bautista four, Machado and Cruz three apiece, plus Reyes one) and four home run titles (Bautista two, Beltre and Cruz once each).
And what Canada saw was not even the best Dominican lineup. Another former all-star Starling Marte, who was injured, will play centre, Polanco shifts to left, Bautista to right, Cruz to DH, Beltre to third base and Macho to shortstop. As Dempster said, “some of their bench players can start on a lot of teams.”
Canada’s lineup? Well, only three appeared in the majors last year: Justin Morneau (New Westminster, BC), Freddie Freeman (Fountain Valley, Calif.) and Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, Ont.). Morneau and Freeman combined for five all-star appearances, an MVP trophy, a Silver Slugger and three top 10 MVP in addition to Morneau winning.
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TRYING TIMES: Kitchener’s Rich Graham was a man torn between his emotions. He showed at Marlins Park wearing a blue Blue Jays No. 19 with BAUTISTA on his back. Bautista is with the Dominican Republic.
So who is he rooting for?
“I hope Jose has a great game, hits some homers and I hope we (Canada) win,” said Graham, who was eating a Cuban sandwich with his partner and a couple of Canada Day-shirted Blue Jays fans from Oakville.
Graham was 1-for-2.
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JOSE THE GREAT: Four years ago when the Dominican ran the table, Jose Bautista was not available to play coming off wrist surgery. Yet he was healthy this spring and got in touch with GM Moises Alou asking to play ... like in 2009.
Bautista pinch ran for David Ortiz in the opener, a 3-2 loss to The Netherlands, with Leon Boyd (White Rock, BC) getting the save in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He singled in a 9-0 win over Panama and also played as The Netherlands eliminated the Dominican 2-1 in 11 inning with Boyd getting the win.
“I thought I was in Quisqueya,” Bautista told reporters. “It was great energy from our fans, from our people. When you play for your country, it cannot be compared to many things. They transferred that positive energy to us.”
Bautista hit in the clean-up spot and had a day: going 3-for-4, including a mammoth three-run homer off Dustin Molleken (Regina, Sask.) in sixth. Fans stopped their chanting and you could hear a gasp.
“This was a team full of clean-up hitters, that released me from the pressure.” Bautista said. “We’re all pulling in the same direction.”
The uniforms of Yordano Ventura of the Kansas City Royals and Andy Marte, former Cleveland Indian hung in the third base dugout. Both were killed in car accidents this off-season.
“It was a very beautiful detail from the management to have those jerseys in the dugout, as an example of the brotherhood among all Dominican players,” Bautista said. “As Carlos (Martinez) said, we have to learn from our mistakes, and to start to guide the young people better as they come up.”
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ON THE MOUND: Now you might have been sitting in front of your TV -- waiting for Buck Martinez to come on, sorry he is going games in Japan -- and wondering why on earth Dempster who has not started since Sept. 17, 2013 was on the mound?
Four Canadians combined to make 41 starts in the majors last season: James Paxton (Ladner, BC) had 20 for the Seattle Mariners, Jameson Taillon (The Woodland, Tex.), 18 for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.), two for the Minnesota Twins and Rob Zastryzny (Edmonton, Alta.) started once after the Chicago Cubs had clinched. Only Albers was committed to pitching. The others either were not given approval or didn’t want to come.
“Then I saw the lineup,” Dempster said, “and I was like, ‘Well, maybe not them.’ The challenge is to try and win each pitch. That’s all you can do. You can’t look at the lineup as a whole.
“That’s probably the least upset I have ever been after pitching as poorly as I did in that second in my entire career,” Dempster said. “I was proud of myself for not being afraid to fail.”
“People would say ‘Aw, man, what are you doing? You’ll get hurt,’” he said. “But it’s the challenge of going out there in the WBC and pitching against the best hitters in the world. What more exciting thing to do than that?”
Dempster pitched in the majors for 16 years, winning 132 games, 2,387 innings and 2,075 strikeouts -- second only to Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, NB) in all categories. He also hit 91 batters in his career, more than Jenkins or any other Canadian. Rodney is fortunate that Dempster has retired and that he isn’t pitching in the National League.
“It took a lot of courage. To go out and compete his butt off and unfortunately it didn’t go quite as well as he would have liked,” Albers said of the man he replaced on the mound. “He still made some good pitches and competed. Three years off? Not having seen a hitter? That’s tough. He won’t be the only one down the road with that lineup.”
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LONG TIMER: Blue Jays scout Bryan Lambe is covering the Miami venu of the WBC.
“I don’t want to say we’ve both been at this a long time, but I scouted Ryan Dempster a high schooler,” said Lambe.
Dempster was drafted in the third round of the 1995 draft by the Texas Rangers.
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THE GOOD: Rowan Wick hit 97 MPH walking one and striking out one in the scoreless eighth ... Albers was impressive with his two scoreless innings facing only seven men and allowing a single by Manny Machado ,,, CF Dalton Pompey doubled in a run in the fifth to cut the lead to 4-2 ... Scott Mathieson pitched an inning allowing one unearned run after 2B Peter Orr snared a line drive and fired wild of first ... Pompey and SS Jonathan Malo combined for a perfect relay to C George Kottaras to cut down Bautista at the plate after a Carlos Santana double off Jimmy Henderson Rene Tosoni had a pair of hits.
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THE BAD: Henderson faced four batters in the fifth and retired one -- when Dalton Pompey and Jonathan Malo combined to throw out Jose Bautista on Carlos Santana’s double to left centre ... Canada was hitless in four at-bats with men in scoring position ... Canada’s first run scored on a Martinez balk with Malo on third ... Kevin Chapman allowed two runs in sixth allowing two hits ... 1B Freddie Freeman made his debut wearing a Canada uniform and was hitless in four at-bats with a strikeout.
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BESIDES THE JOSES: In addition to Jose Bautista and Jose Reyes, ex-Jays on the Dominican roster are third base coach Juan Samuel and first base coach Alfredo Griffin.
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FIRST PITCH STRIKES: Plácido Polanco, who played 13 years in the minors, including his final year with the 2013 Miami Marlins and Jason Jackson (Chatham, NB), who pitched four seasons in the majors and is now president of Baseball Canada, threw out the ceremonial first pitches.
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NEXT FOR DR: Team USA played Columbia Friday night And Canada plays Columbia Saturday at noon The Dominican Republic meets USA Saturday night at a sold-out Marlins Park with Marcus Stroman possibly facing the Dominican and pal Jose Bautista.
“Marcus is a great pitcher, we cannot be too over confident,” said Bautista. “I know he’ll pitch in the game but I don’t know if he’ll start. But the certainty that he’s going to pitch in the game, is almost 100%. He is a player that plays with a lot of passion, a lot of energy. He’s Latino. He’s playing for United States, but his mother is a Puerto Rican.
“We’ll try hard to defeat him, because in a game where all players are coming to bring out their best, anything can happen.”
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READING MATERIAL: Tyler Kepner, New York Times: Ryan Dempster Returns From Retirement to Pitch for Canada ... Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports: The Dominican lineup is a wrecking machine that may be impossible to stop ... Baseball America’s Alexis Brudnicki: Pinero Looks Forward To Making An Impact For Canada ... Nick Ashbourne of Yahoo Canada: Bautista continues torrid spring with bomb vs. Canada at WBC ... Association Press: Bautista goes deep, dropping Canada in WBC opener ... J.J. Adams, The Morning Briefing: No joke — B.C.’s Dempster returns to the mound for Canada