For players such as Manny Machado, last weekend proves the WBC needs to stay

The World Baseball Classic is somewhat divisive among baseball fans, but many players enjoy it thoroughly.

After three trips to the postseason and the day-to-day intensity of the playoff races that precede it, Orioles third baseman Manny Machado has more baseball experience at age 24 than many see in their entire careers. He's no stranger to important games on baseball's biggest stage.

Machado, however, has never been a part of anything like this past weekend, when he played in his first World Baseball Classic. A pro-Dominican crowd among the nearly 40,000 fans here serenaded him with an "M-V-P" chant during Sunday's win over Colombia after he made diving stop down the third-base line — a play he's made routinely as an Oriole. The chant was almost muffled by the constant sound of blaring horns and beating drums.

Teams such as the Dominican bring their best players to the event and have fielded a lineup full of All-Stars, and even though Team USA has its most star-studded squad since the event began in 2006, some of the game's top American stars — notably Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw and Kris Bryant — took a pass on the WBC.

Machado said it didn't take much time for him to realize there is no event like the WBC. The playoff crowds at Camden Yards might be a bit louder, he said, but playing for international bragging rights is distinctive.

"Everybody's playing for what's across their chest, so it makes it a little more emotional and a little more different," said Machado, who was born in Miami and grew up 10 minutes away from Marlins Park in Hialeah, but is of Dominican heritage. "... It's loud. I think overall it can be a little louder in Baltimore, but this is different — more music, more loose, just two different types of baseball."

The highlight of the weekend was the three-run homer hit by former Orioles slugger Nelson Cruz on Saturday night, the game-winning hit in Dominican Republic's 7-5 comeback win over Team USA. It literally made the ground shake at Marlins Park.

Cruz, who has 300 career homers in the majors, including 16 career postseason homers — his solo homer in Game 3 of the 2014 ALDS sent the Orioles to the American League Championship Series — said his blast Saturday night was the biggest of his career.

"I think this is the first, the top one," Cruz said. "You play for a lot of teams, you move to different teams. You love the fans. But you play for your country. It doesn't matter where you go, they're going to follow you. They're going to love you. So we play for the country we love and we win for them."

This is the fourth World Baseball Classic, and the event has faced plenty of criticism. Participants must alter their offseason and spring training routines to prepare for high-intensity innings in March. Teams lose some of their best players during the most important block of the spring training schedule. The biggest stress involves teams hoping their best players don't get hurt while playing in an exhibition game.

"Get through it healthy, that's the most important thing," said Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who is playing in his second WBC. "Of course everybody's going to complain about something they don't like. That's the nature of the game."

Five of the six Orioles players participating in the WBC have advanced to the second round.

The Dominican Republic team — which includes Machado and new Orioles catcher Welington Castillo — will open the second round Tuesday in San Diego against also-undefeated Puerto Rico.

Despite blowing a five-run cushion in a devastating loss to the Dominican, Team USA — which has Jones and reliever Mychal Givens — opens second-round play Wednesday in San Diego.

Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop's Netherlands team has already split its first two second-round games in Tokyo going into a critical third game against Cuba on Tuesday. Right-hander Vidal Nuno's Mexico team was eliminated in pool play, so the Orioles will get him back soon

For all five, it means at least another week away from preparing for the regular season. All three remaining teams with Orioles players could end up in the championship round at Dodger Stadium. The tournament final isn't until March 22.

The sellout crowd of 37,446 that gathered for the Dominican's win over USA on Saturday night was the largest crowd to watch a baseball game in the five-year history of Marlins Park. That was followed by a crowd of 36,952 on Sunday for the Dominican's pool-play finale against Colombia. The six WBC games played in Miami last weekend drew 163,878 fans, which was a roughly six percent increase from the combined attendance for the six second-round games played in Miami in the 2013 WBC.

The crowd size can be attributed to Miami's close proximity to the Dominican Republic — it's just a 2 ½-hour flight from the country's capital of Santo Domingo — and now that the rest of the tournament moves west, it's unlikely those attendance numbers will hold up.

The crowds in Miami were treated to an exuberant style of baseball rarely seen in the regimented major leagues, with entire teams jumping over dugout railings and spilling onto the field to celebrate home runs. The celebrations, however, were never confused with showmanship. After hitting his game-winning homer against Team USA on Saturday, Cruz pumped his fists in the air as he rounded the bases and ran his hands across the front of his jersey, as if to highlight the words "Dominicana" across his chest, before running into a crowd of teammates at home plate.

"We show a lot of emotion, and you can see the fans are into the games," Cruz said. "I think this is good for baseball. A lot of fans, they don't know about this way. You come and watch us play and watch the fans. I definitely think it's good for baseball. … That's the way we play in winter ball. Everybody leaves the dugout and says hi to the guys. Fans are always in the game. They bring the bands."

Machado, who considers Cruz one of his mentors, especially after playing as Orioles teammates in 2014, said the experience of being among the free spirits in the Dominican clubhouse it unlike any experience he's been a part of.

Cruz took Machado (and Schoop) under his wing in 2014, and an elaborate celebratory handshake they created that year remained when Cruz went to Seattle the following year. But that's the most theatrics you'll see in the Orioles clubhouse.

Meanwhile, Jones is in a bit of a leadership role as one of five players on Team USA who represented the country in the last WBC in 2013.

"When you look at our lineup, you've got so many young guys mixed with the vets," he said. "It's a beautiful thing to see."

The talent of some of the lesser-known teams has opened his eyes about the growth of the game around the world. Take, for example, a Colombian team that pushed Team USA to extra innings before Jones' walk-off hit. A first-time qualifier for the WBC, Colombia also took the Dominican Republic to extra innings Sunday.

"To be honest with you, I only knew about a few people on their roster," Jones said. "That's one of the great things. It's an educational process for everybody. … It's about the pride. It shows that in this great game, you don't have to speak any language, no words need to be spoken, that it grabs you internationally. A couple years ago, South Africa was in it, so it's showing that it's even reaching Africa. It's a great game that just unites people of all walks of life, and that's the beautiful part about this game."

The event's future is cloudy, though. It was born to serve as an international showcase in advance of baseball's elimination from the Olympics in 2012. The WBC is scheduled again in 2020, but MLB hasn't committed its players, though commissioner Rob Manfred said last weekend in Tokyo that the WBC has been profitable for the game.

In Miami, Dominican Republic souvenirs — caps, T-shirts, sweatshirts and jerseys — quickly flew off the shelves in the Marlins Park team store. T-shirt jerseys of Machado and Robinson Cano were the most popular sellers. And hours after the Dominican's win over Team USA on Saturday, the sounds of the horns and drums that filled Marlins Park could still be heard outside the ballpark.

Still, this year's event has already had its road bumps. Puerto Rican players complained about security when a scuffle broke out near the family section during a game against Mexico in Jalisco. Mexico thought it earned a tiebreaker game by beating Venezuela by two runs, only to find out it was eliminated by losing a tiebreaker with the Venezuela by a fraction of a run.

For Machado, it's been a fun ride. Win or lose, he's already thinking about playing again three years from now and said whispers that this might be the last WBC for MLB players are frustrating.

"[I'd be] very disappointed," Machado said. "... I think we need to try everything possible to try to get it going and keep it there, because this is a great experience, not just for us as players, but for all of MLB and all of baseball all over the world."

eencina@baltsun.com

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