Yadier Molina lifts Puerto Rico over its nemesis
Puerto Rico catcher Yadier Molina (4) is congratulated after hitting a solo home run in the World Baseball Classic Pool F Game 1 against the Dominican Republic at PETCO Park on Mar. 14. (Denis Poroy / Getty Images)
This is the Caribbean bracket of the World Baseball Classic, the one that should have been played in Miami. The United States brought the home field, but the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela brought the fire.
On Tuesday, they could have covered the upper deck of Petco Park with a tarp and still had plenty of seats left over. The fans were few, but they were loud, with their chants and with their horns. There were signs too, one that summarized in six words this pilgrimage for Puerto Rican fans.
“Forget Disney, I wanna see Yadi,” the sign read.
Yadier Molina put a long-suffering country on his back. The spiritual leader of the Puerto Rico team led by word and deed Tuesday, with a home run and a run-scoring single, and by tagging one runner out at the plate and throwing another out at second base.
Puerto Rico won, 3-1, ending the Dominican Republic’s 11-game WBC winning streak. The Dominicans, undefeated in their run through the 2013 WBC, last lost in the tournament in 2009, to the Netherlands.
A Puerto Rican reporter complimented Molina on his “godlike manner.” Puerto Rico Manager Edwin Rodriguez did not go quite that far, but far enough.
“For years, it has been like that,” Rodriguez said. “As Yadier Molina goes, the team goes.”
Molina is 34, a seven-time All-Star and one of the most indispensable players in baseball. He said his St. Louis Cardinals never have pressured him to skip the WBC. “They know better,” Molina said.
He has played in all four editions of the WBC, the first in 2006. The new generation of Puerto Rican stars — infielders Carlos Correa, 22, and Francisco Lindor, 23 — grew up watching Molina on television.
“I’m old,” Molina said. “I’m blessed.”
Never more so, perhaps, than when slugger Nelson Cruz tried to steal in the eighth inning. Molina threw him out by so wide a margin that second baseman Javier Baez lifted one hand in celebration before he tagged out Cruz with the other hand.
Molina said he was surprised but delighted that Cruz tried to steal. Molina said his cellphone was buzzing after the game with clips of Baez’s giddily triumphant reaction.
“He had a good jump, but no one is faster than the ball,” Baez said.
The Puerto Ricans exploded from their dugout after the final out, one of the players waving the national flag, all of them jumping for joy.
“We were waiting for this for four years,” Rodriguez said.
In 2013, the teams played three times. The Dominican Republic won all three, the last one for the championship.
So, yes, the Dominicans were the biggest, baddest team in the world. For the last four years, Puerto Rico has heard all about it.
Except Puerto Rico hadn’t exactly gotten killed in the last tournament. The scores of those three games against the Dominican: 4-2, 2-0, 3-0.
The Puerto Rican infield in that 2013 championship, when the teams last met: third baseman Andy Gonzalez, shortstop Mike Aviles, second baseman Irving Falu. The Puerto Rican infield on Tuesday: Correa, Lindor and Baez. That’s a huge upgrade.
Pitching is the weak link for Puerto Rico, always has been.
On Tuesday, the Puerto Ricans faced Carlos Martinez, who is employed by the Cardinals, on a $51-million contract. They countered with Orlando Roman, who is employed by the Lamigo Monkeys, a club in Taiwan.
Roman gave Puerto Rico seven outs. The bullpen got the other 20.
Japan and the Netherlands, which eliminated Cuba with a 14-1 blowout, appear to be the two teams poised to advance to the semifinals from the Tokyo pool.
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin