Team USA was well aware of the gauntlet the Dominican Republic laid down on the first night of the World Baseball Classic.
Perhaps the Americans were distracted by the noise of the Dominican bats and boisterous fans in Thursday’s thrashing of Canada in anticipation of Saturday’s sold-out showdown at Marlins Park.
A sluggish U.S. team had to go to extra innings after rallying from a 2-0 deficit Friday to avoid a disastrous upset against a Colombian team playing for the first time in the tournament.
The Marlins’ Christian Yelich scored on Adam Jones’s two-out single off Guillermo Moscoso in the 10th inning for a nerve-racking 3-2 walk-off victory against a talented Colombian team of little renown.
USA, USA … whew!
“Tip of the camp to those guys, they gave us a run for our money,” Yelich said of the Colombians. “The atmosphere was unbelievable. That’s a game that you remember for a long time and a great way to kick things off.”
Jose Quintana, a .500 pitcher in five seasons with the White Sox, held a U.S. team with an All-Star at every position without a hit for 5 2/3 innings before Brandon Crawford singled cleanly to right to spark a two-run rally to tie it in the sixth.
Starter Chris Archer gave the U.S. four perfect innings but departed after 41 pitches due to an agreement with his major league team, the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Colombians asserted themselves with two runs in the fifth on consecutive two-out doubles by Jesus Valdez, Adrian Sanchez and Mauricio Ramos off Mychal Givens.
“I think what it says across our chest is what we’re about,” Jones said. “Right now we’re taking a backseat to our own egos and doing what we have to do for Team USA.”
The secondary mission for the U.S. team was to assert its own claim to Little Havana as American soil going into Saturday for what figures to be the loudest and likely the best attended game ever played in the ballpark since it opened in 2012.
Team USA right-fielder Giancarlo Stanton, who played in the 2013 encounter between the countries, a second-round matchup won by the Dominicans, is well aware of what to expect.
“I wasn’t here [Thursday]. I was here the last time, so I remember,” Stanton said Friday. “The buzz in here is incredible during this time, and I look forward to doing it again and having that atmosphere and set up for Opening Day, set up for the Mid-Summer Classic through here. So it’s going to be … Miami’s going to be popping for a little bit.”
Friday’s crowd was smaller (22,580) and the chants of “USA, USA” a notable contrast to the animated Latin resonance that resounded 24 hours before, setting up a cacophonous culture clash.
Adding to the incongruity of the setting for Saturday is that the defending champion Dominican Republic has been designated as the home team. The safest bet around is that their supporters will ensure they are the dominant voice.
In addition to Dominicans residing in South Florida, many have traveled from their homeland as well as several cities in the Northeast to bask in the glory of their star-studded team.
The U.S. can count on Marlins Man.
The game has been sold out for weeks, including some 400 standing room tickets, and may well exceed the listed capacity of 37,742. The Marlins have played to four considered sellouts, toppled by 37,116 for Opening Day in 2014 against Colorado.
The U.S.-Dominican showdown is by far the hottest ticket for any of the WBC games in the States, including the championship round in Los Angeles, according to TicketIQ, which tracks 90 percent of the ticket resale market. The average asking price for Saturday was $240, 207 percent more than for any of the other games at Marlins Park. The cheapest ticket available had jumped from $53 to $100 in the past 30 days.
Even as they were preparing to take the field against Colombia, the Americans were constantly reminded of the challenge awaiting. Manager Jim Leyland cautioned against looking ahead, saying, “This is one of those scenarios where you really do have to take one game at a time because it can be a very short tournament.”
Getting by Colombia ensured that a win against the Dominicans isn’t essential for the U.S. to be one of the two teams to advance to the next round. It would elevate the cause of a U.S. team with title aspirations to strip some of the aura of invincibility from the Dominicans, who ran the table with eight wins in 2013.
Leyland has the bats to match up against the D.R. with at least one All-Star available at every position. He had Andrew McCutchen, a former National League MVP and five-time All-Star batting eighth Friday, with the likes of Eric Hosmer and Yelich on the bench.
“You guys see the lineup, it’s unbelievable,” Stroman said. “One through nine, pretty much no weak points at all. So [I’ve] just got to be on my game.”
There does seem to be debate about which is more formidable, the Dominican team or its fans. Yelich, who played before Marlins crowds dwarfed by visiting fans, was asked about what it will be like playing in a hostile environment in his home park.
“I don’t know if I would say it’s going to be a hostile environment, but I think it’s an environment that we’re all looking forward to playing in and experiencing,” Yelich said.
Hostile or not, it is certain to be partisan. And deafening.