Fittingly, the final of the World Baseball Classic was an exhibition of Dominican dominance from wire to wire. The Dominican Republic did not lose a game from pool play through San Francisco, and the Dominican republic led from the bottom of the first through the bottom of the ninth in the final against Puerto Rico.
But the Puerto Ricans had their chances. Outside of a pair of mistake pitches to Edwin Encarnacion and Erick Aybar, Puerto Rico’s pitching staff shut down the formidable Dominican lineup. Sam Deduno pitched the game of his life and kept the Puerto Ricans off the board through five innings. Puerto Rico’s best chance didn’t come until manager Tony Pena avariciously attempted to squeeze two innings out of Octavio Dotel. Predictably, the 39-year-old wasn’t up to the task. Puerto Rico’s first two batters reached and the Dominicans faced their biggest challenge of the game.
Unfortunately for Puerto Rico, the teeth of the Dominican bullpen was waiting. The unit as a whole was stupendous, as it allowed just seven runs on 21 hits and 17 walks over 39.1 innings, good for a 1.60 ERA. The trio Pena saved for the final three innings was downright masterful. Pedro Strop, Santiago Casilla and Fernando Rodney combined to allow just 12 baserunners (seven walks, five hits) and struck out 18 batters in 19 innings.
Pena summoned Strop for the jam in the seventh. Puerto Rico was sending up its seventh, eighth and ninth hitters. Strop’s stuff was an impossible matchup for the weaker Puerto Rico hitters, and it was immediately apparent.
Carlos Rivera, the Puerto Rican first baseman and Strop’s first opponent, has spent much of the last six years tearing up the Mexican League. Over 511 games since 2007, Rivera owns a .359/.444/.556 line with 80 home runs and 120 doubles; he has an absurd 256 walks against 225 strikeouts in 2,163 plate appearances. But Rivera is 34 years old, and Rivera doesn’t see biting 94 MPH two-seam fastballs in the Mexican League.
Strop fell behind 2-1, as he is wont to do — he walked five batters per nine innings with the Orioles in 2012. Then Strop found the strike zone. Rivera couldn’t do anything but foul off a two-seamer and a slider, pushing the count to 2-2.
Some pitchers have curveballs known for turning knees into jelly. The two-seam fastball Strop threw at 2-2 went a step further: it broke his back.
Strop unleashed a 95 MPH two-seam fastball which started its journey aimed directly at Rivera’s thigh. At the last moment, it darted back to Carlos Santana‘s glove, placed directly over the black of the inside corner. It was the perfect pitch in the biggest situation of the World Baseball Classic championship.
Strop carved through the next batter, pinch-hitter Pedro Valdez, with three straight pitches, as he went down with a weak swing at a slider diving out of the zone. And on a 2-1 pitch to ninth hitter Jesus Feliciano, Strop induced a pop-up into foul ground in left field. Miguel Tejada nearly broke his hip making the catch in the AT&T Park bullpen, but the inning was over and Puerto Rico’s final threat was doused.
Puerto Rico only managed one baserunner each off Casilla and Rodney, one off a walk and one off an error. At no point in the eighth and ninth inning did the Puerto Ricans approach a comeback from a three-run deficit. Strop’s quick work in the seventh was huge — not only did he eliminate the threat in just 13 pitches, he also evaded the top of the Puerto Rican lineup — and the red-hot Angel Pagan — with runners on base, as he may have been the one to break the Dominican bullpen’s stranglehold on the tournament.
The World Baseball Classic is the highest level of baseball to institute a mercy rule — 10 runs through seven innings or 15 through five. Against the Dominican bullpen, a three-run lead felt worthy of mercy. In a competition featuring many of the world’s best hitters, it was the relievers of the Dominican Republic who dominated the stage, time in and time out. Strop’s excellence under pressure in the championship game exemplified just how far ahead they were of the competition.