SAN DIEGO — Puerto Rico is heading north on I-5 for for another trip to the World Baseball Classic final four.
Peroxide for everyone. It is a bleached blond kind of WBC.
Puerto Rico qualified for its second straight appearance in the final round with a 6-5 victory over the United States at Petco Park on Friday, winning its pool in a game that went down to the final 86 mph swing-and-a-miss slider from closer Edwin Diaz with the tying run on third base.
Puerto Rico has been a sight to behold. Players tinted their hair during training camp as a motivational tool, and it appears the team that dyes together flies high together.
They are 5-0 and loving it.
When Carlos Correa hit an RBI single in the first inning, the first of six straight singles off U.S. starter Marcus Stroman, he took off his batting helmet and ran his right hand over the top of his bleached-blond hair. Moments later, Correa did the same thing as he approached the dugout after scoring the third run of the four-run inning that gave Puerto Rico a big leg up.
“That’s kind of what we do when we get base hits, when we score runs, when we steal bases” said Correa, 21.
“We’re young players out there having fun. Carlos (Beltran) doesn’t have much hair there. He does this (rubbing his hands on the side of his face because of his whiskers). You saw it when he got the RBI hit. We’re playing baseball really hard, and we’re 5-0 so far, so we’ll keep doing that.”
Manager Edwin Rodriguez was asked if he planned to join the dyed-hair club for men. He took off his hat to show a bald scalp.
“I have no chance,” Rodriguez said.
“It’s coming. It’s coming soon,” Beltran disagreed.
Puerto Rico will play the Netherlands in the first semifinal game Monday at Dodger Stadium, and its victory over the U.S. rendered the final game of pool play Saturday afternoon meaningless because of the way the other games have played out.
The United States and the Dominican Republic will play an elimination game Saturday night to fill out the field. Japan will meet that winner in the other semifinal Tuesday. Puerto Rico beat Japan in the semifinals in 2013 before losing to the Dominican Republic.
Puerto Rico did something Friday that the powerful Dominican Republic could not do last weekend — they hit Stroman, who gave up three hits in 4.2 scoreless innings against the DR in a game the U.S. lost, 7-5, in first-round play.
They used an aggressive approach to attack Stroman. Some of their six singles were well hit, some came while fighting off good pitches, but they all counted and with a sacrifice fly thrown in it added up to a 4-0 lead.
“We had a plan with Stroman … and we executed,” Beltran said.
Angel Pagan, Francisco Lindor and Correa began the parade, with Correa inside-outing a pitch to right field to drive in the first run. Carlos Beltran singled in Lindor and Yadier Molina followed with a single to drive in Correa. Javier Baez singled to load the bases before Eddie Rosario’s sacrifice fly to left field made it 4-0. Molina tagged and beat the throw to third but was tagged out when he came off the bag, blunting the rally.
Puerto Rico led 6-3 after scoring two unearned runs on two-out throwing error by four-time Gold Glove winner Nolan Armando in a hitless sixth-inning rally that featured a hit batter, a walk and three stolen bases, two by Baez.
That was enough for Diaz, who survived a two-run triple by Brandon Crawford to clinch the Pool F title.
“This is a huge victory for our people, for our country. The first days in Arizona gave us a chance to learn about our mission and to focus on what is on the front of our jersey,” Beltran said while putting his hand on the “PR” on his jersey.
Like Beltran, Yadier Molina has played in all four WBCs for his the land of his heritage. Puerto Rico and Japan are the only two countries who have won at least four games in each WBC, and the trip to Dodger Stadium will give Puerto Rico a another chance at a title after it lost to the Dominican in the 2013 finals.
“For me, it’s something really special,” said Correa, 21, playing in his first WBC.
“Nothing compares to this moment right now. Playing for my home country and being able to represent Puerto Rico and be able to bring a lot of joy and happiness to the people back home that are going through a tough time right now.”
Puerto Rico and the U.S. have developed a nice little rivalry, having split two games in each of the last two WBCs. The U.S. eliminated Puerto Rico in 2009, and Puerto Rico turned the tables in 2013.
The U.S. won the the first 2013 matchup, 7-1, behind left-hander Gio Gonzalez and a five-RBI game by David Wright, but Puerto Rico won the one that really mattered. Nelson Figueroa pitched six scoreless innings and J.C.Romero pitched out of a bases-loaded situation in the eighth inning of a 4-3 victory, eliminating the U.S. Puerto Rico advanced to the final round and lost to the Dominican Republic in the final game.
The U.S can only hope its gets another chance by qualifying for the final round.
Puerto Rico outscored Venezuela, Mexico and Italy 29-7 while winning three games in the first round, and they have never trailed against the Dominican Republic and the U.S. here.
“Not only winning, but the quality of the teams,” Rodriguez said. “After every game we play, the confidence keeps improving. We feel very confident going to L.A. right now.”