This was the best of the World Baseball Classic, the kind of night that brought to life the vision of this tournament: a sellout crowd, a nine-inning serenade of chants and cowbells and drums and horns, and a thriller between two of the world’s best teams.
It was loud. It was fun. It was tense.
And it was won by the United States, the team so often shamed for not persuading its best players to participate and not getting a championship performance out of the players that do.
Giancarlo Stanton launched an epic home run for the game-winning hit, Adam Jones launched himself high above the outfield fence to make an epic catch, and Team USA beat the Dominican Republic, 6-3, in an elimination game Saturday at Petco Park.
For the Dominican, the defending champions, failing to qualify for the championship round is a national sin. The Americans, who have never won the WBC, advanced to a semifinal game Tuesday against Japan, the country that won the first two editions of the tournament.
The U.S. beat the Dominican Republic for the first time in WBC history and avenged a first-round loss this month in which it blew a five-run lead to the Dominicans.
For the U.S. team, which has heard quite enough about how Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and so many other American luminaries are not here, this was a sweet triumph for those that were here.
“There were a lot of people that respectfully declined, and we’re not going to throw anybody under the bus,” Manager Jim Leyland said. “We’re going to honor the people that accepted and are here. … That’s the only team I’m talking about. And right now that’s the only team I care about. And these players that are here are the only players I care about right now.”
There was Danny Duffy, who said he “can’t even sit at the same lunch table” as the more decorated American starters that skipped the WBC. The Dominican got two runs before Duffy got two outs, and Duffy righted himself to get the next 11 outs without giving up another run to a frightening lineup.
There was Luke Gregerson, who pitched here for five seasons, as a setup man for Padres closers Heath Bell and Huston Street. Gregerson is an unheralded closer on a U.S. team with Andrew Miller and David Robertson in its bullpen, but he worked a perfect ninth for the save.
There was Pat Neshek, a career middle reliever on his sixth major league team, who triggered the loudest among many loud “U-S-A” chants by striking out Starling Marte with the tying runs in scoring position in the fifth inning, on a foul tip after four tension-inducing foul balls.
And there was Stanton, whose laser of a home run crashed against the side of the second deck of the Western Metal Supply Co. building, beyond the left-field fence. But the home run that wasn’t might have been more memorable than the home run that was.
In the seventh inning, with the U.S. nursing a 4-2 lead, Jones soared high above the center-field fence to rob Manny Machado — his Baltimore Orioles teammate — of a home run. The fans there did not exactly clear out for Jones, increasing what was already a very high degree of difficulty on the catch.
“I'm still in kind of shock that I even got to that ball,” Jones said.
Machado, who had a bit of a strut as he left the batter’s box, rounded first base, removed his helmet and tipped it toward Jones.
Jones delighted in checking the replay before he spoke with reporters.
“Off the bat, I'm just like, this ball's hit really far, so just keep going, keep going,” Jones said. “You know this California air's going to slow it down, and just never quit. That's just the style I play with.
“I don't mind running into a wall or two.”
The spectacular play became even more critical when Robinson Cano followed with what would have been a game-tying home run; the Jones catch meant the Americans carried that 4-3 lead into the eighth inning.
“A lot of times it's not where you make the play, it's when you make the play,” Leyland said. “That just took a little wind out of their sails.”
Andrew McCutchen’s two-run double in the eighth provided a welcome chance for the Americans to exhale.
Stanton’s home run was a career moment for baseball’s most powerful slugger, who has had precious few team moments in his decorated career. He won the home run derby here, he has led his league in home runs, he is a three-time All-Star, and he is the $325 million owner of the richest contract in baseball history.
But he plays for the Miami Marlins, which means he has never played on a team that finished with a winning record, let alone made a postseason appearance. He suffered a season-ending injury when he hit was in the face by a pitch three years ago — he sustained facial fractures and required dental surgery — and he grieved along with his teammates at the death of pitcher Jose Fernandez last September.
“I wanted to play for a lot of reasons, but one was to get that atmosphere, so when I do get a chance to be in the playoffs, I'm ready,” Stanton said. “I can revert back to these times and be prepared.”
The evening was so exciting that Leyland, the 72-year-old manager, pumped his fist toward the crowd after the game.
“Some of the teams show maybe physically a little more passion sometimes than we do, but don't get that confused with really not being into it and really not caring,” Leyland said. “It was a wonderful feeling.
“We're going to the finals.”
When the U.S. and the Dominican played in Miami, the atmosphere was all Santo Domingo. In San Diego, the crowd was more balanced, and the “U-S-A” chants could not be drowned out.
For the U.S., Dodger Stadium awaits. Japan will bring the noise, too. Bring it on, in a classic that is more than living up to its name.
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin