Led by Cano, enthusiastic Dominicans on mission
MIAMI -- Robinson Cano has won a World Series with the Yankees. That's the top prize at the end of any grueling Major League season. But even beating the Phillies in 2009 by taking the sixth and final game on the turf at Yankee Stadium may not top what the Dominican Republic is attempting to do now in the World Baseball Classic.
Cano homered, doubled, singled and scored the deciding run on Tuesday as the D.R. came back from a four-run first-inning deficit to defeat a pesky team from Italy, 5-4, with three seventh-inning runs in the first game of a Pool 2 day-night doubleheader at Marlins Park.
He groused about taking a trio of hard slides from the Italians in the pivot at second base, but that's only more evidence of how tough these games are being played. And when Cano scored what turned out to be the winning run in the seventh inning on a Nelson Cruz single, his Dominican teammates danced on the field and celebrated as if the game had just ended with a walk-off homer.
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"The problem is that you're down by four in the first inning and in the seventh inning you score and go up by one," Cano said, trying to explain the rare in-game explosion of emotion. "I mean, you get so excited, especially in a situation like this. There's no tomorrow here, so you've got to play every day like it's your last game and you've got to win."
The Dominicans and their horn-honking, whistle-blowing, drum-beating fans are obviously facing the third edition of this tournament with uncommon enthusiasm after a rash of failure. In 2006, the D.R. lost a semifinal game to Cuba at San Diego's Petco Park. In '09, the Dominicans of Cano and Jose Reyes were upset twice by the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Puerto Rico and didn't make it out of the first round.
At 4-0 thus far in the tournament, the Dominicans are playing like a team possessed and on a path to redemption. The goal is not only a trip to San Francisco next week for the semifinals and final game at AT&T Park, but winning it all for the first time.
"It is a unique group, and this group is here for a reason," said Dominican manager Tony Pena, who as coach with the Yankees experienced some of that World Series-winning tradition. "They know the reason, and everybody knows the reason. We haven't had great experiences in the past. We were a team with great talent and didn't make it past the first round.
"Today when we got close in the game, they knew we could win. They we're starting to feel that. They kept talking in the dugout: 'Let's hold it right there, we're going to come back and win the game. We're going to come back.' It showed when we scored the run. It's a very emotional team. This team has a lot of emotion."
The middle of the lineup is stocked from three to seven, starting with Cano, first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, third baseman Hanley Ramirez, right fielder Cruz and catcher Carlos Santana. Reyes is the shortstop and table setter in the leadoff spot.
That's a whole lot of offensive talent. Cano, at 30 and perhaps heading into his walk year toward free agency, is taking it to another level. Thus far in the tournament, he's 12-for-19 (.632) with two homers, four doubles, six RBIs, five runs scored and 22 total bases. And the D.R. doesn't play again until Thursday night, against the Americans at 7 p.m. ET on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes, giving him a day to cool down.
A word to the wise for the Yankees: Get that checkbook ready because the price is only going to keep going up if Cano continues on this torrid pace.
"Well, in Robby's case, I don't think we expected anything different," said Team USA manager Joe Torre, who was still the Yankees' skipper in 2005 when Cano came up for good. "The first time I saw him in Spring Training as an invitee, and he hit the ball in the air and it didn't come down, that was a pretty good indication he was going to be a special player. Now, Robby is a special young man, there's no question about it."
Cano grew up in San Pedro de Macoris, perhaps the baseball development capital of the Latin world. He is playing with a heightened level of intensity that no one can bottle. It's obviously infectious and his D.R. teammates have caught the buzz.
In New York, the Yankees are the antithesis, buttoned down in their hallowed pinstripes.
"Yeah, it's certainly a different style we play here than we play in New York," Cano said. "Here, you see how we get outside the dugout. That's something you never see in the big leagues. We're all excited to be here and we all have one mission: to win."
Torre's Team USA is much like the Yankees. After the U.S. came from behind with three runs in the eighth inning and four more in ninth on Sunday at Chase Field to defeat Canada and advance to the second round, there was more a feeling of relief than elation. When the game ended, there was no celebration on the field, just the usual handshakes and back pats that accompany a job well done. It seemed more like Game 67 of the regular season for the Americans, who always have a target on their back in any international tournament. It was business as usual.
"A lot of times, it's just different styles," said U.S. knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who will make his club's next start. "Latin America is sometimes that way, and it's exciting. But don't mistake lack of running on the field for us as not being fully invested. It's just a different way to play sometimes, that's all."
Different, but apparently not as much fun, as the D.R. demonstrated with such wild abandon on Tuesday.
Asked what he liked better -- playing in the Classic or the World Series -- Cano was judicious.
"Well, I would say both," he said.
On many occasions, and this was one of them, actions speak much louder than words.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.