WBC 2017: For undefeated Puerto Rico, it is country, family, roots

SAN DIEGO, CA - MARCH 17: Team Puerto Rico catcher Yadier Molina (4) on the filed after Puerto Rico defeated team USA 6 to 5 to advance into the semifinals during the World Baseball Classic played on March 17, 2017 at PETCO Park in San Diego, CA. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)

SAN DIEGO — Just before the start of the new year, team captain and peerless leader Yadier Molina set up a group chat among the players on Puerto Rico’s roster for the World Baseball Classic. Chat is an understatement.

“We were basically talking to each other every single day, 24/7, from when you wake up to the moment you go to sleep,” Puerto Rican reserve and Los Angeles Dodgers’ multi-tasker Kiké Hernández said.

“I didn’t know it was going to become this, but when we got to (training camp) Arizona we were so happy to see each other and it felt like we’d known each other for our entire life. That was the biggest key for us. It’s taken us where we are right now.”

The bond created added even more of a family feeling to what already was a tight unit, and it has shown.

Puerto Rico swept three games in first- and second-round pool play and is one of two undefeated teams as it prepares to meet the Netherlands in the first WBC semifinal Monday at Hernández’s home park. The U.S. plays Japan, the other 6-0 team, in the second semifinal Tuesday. The winners meet for the title Wednesday.

“Just friends talking, catching up. You start telling jokes. Before you know it, the entire team has blond hair,” Hernández said. “No motivational talk. It didn’t have anything to do with baseball, and before we knew it we’re kind of all like best friends in here. (Molina) is probably been the best leader I’ve been around in my career. It is kind of fun to be on this team right now.”

Kind of.

Joyous Javier Baez made a no-look tag when he took catcher Molina’s threw to retire Nelson Cruz attempting to steal second base in a 3-1 victory in the first game of the second round. Carlos Correa took off his helmet and passed his hand over his dyed-blond locks after a RBI-single in the first inning of a 6-5 victory over the U.S. on Friday.

He did it again when he approached the dugout after scoring in a four-run first. Correa also has sacrificed for the team, playing third base instead of his natural position at shortstop now occupied by Francisco Lindor.

“The passion this team plays with, I’ve never played baseball like that before,” first baseman and Mets infielder T.J. Rivera said. “It’s pretty exciting, and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Puerto Rico has rolled. It blew through the first round at altitude in Guadalajara, Mexico, outscoring the field 29-7. It powered through the marine layer in San Diego by a combined score of 22-8, securing its place in the semifinals with consecutive victories over the Dominican Republic and the U.S. in the first two games of the round.

SAN DIEGO, CA - MARCH 14: Puerto Rico players mob Puerto Rico Catcher Yadier Molina after they won 3-1 in a World Baseball Classic second round Pool F game against Dominican Republic on Tuesday, March 14, 2017 at Petco Park in San Diego, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

SAN DIEGO, CA – MARCH 14: Puerto Rico players mob Puerto Rico Catcher Yadier Molina after they won 3-1 in a World Baseball Classic second round Pool F game against Dominican Republic on Tuesday, March 14, 2017 at Petco Park in San Diego, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

“They play the game right,” U.S. manager Jim Leyland said a 6-5 loss to Puerto Rico on Friday. “They play a combination of big ball and small ball, and you tip your hat to them.”

They also bring a big heart as they hope to take the next step this season after falling to the Dominican Republic, 3-0, in the most recent 2013 finals.

Along the way, Puerto Rico is the only team in the Western Hemisphere to have won at least four games in all four WBCs. Two-time champion Japan also has done it. Puerto Rico has won 19 games in the four tournaments, and only Japan (23) has won more.

“We are playing good baseball,” said Carlos Beltrán, who has played in all four WBCs and after a victory over Venezuela on Saturday afternoon would not rule out a fifth. Beltrán turns 40 on April 24.

“You look at the infield we have. Carlos Correa at third base, Lindor at shortstop, Baez. We have a lot of energy in the middle infield. It is fun to watch. Me being the DH, I’m watching the game from the dugout. When I look at those guys playing with so much excitement and so much passion, it’s a great feeling.”

Beltrán is providing veteran leadership on the field, hitting .471 wth 5 RBIs in five games. Correa is 6-for-15 with 2 home runs and 7 RBIs. Molina is 6-for-17 with 2 homers and 6 RBIs. Lindor is 7-for-18 with 2 homers and 4 RBIs.

Mike Aviles, who had 4 hits and 3 RBIs in a 13-2 victory over Venezuela on Saturday, understands the value of playing for country. He was born and raised in the South Bronx, the son of Puerto Rican parents who came to the U.S. to raise their family. The flag of Puerto Rico flew in the family home. This is his third trip to the WBC, and it feels natural. When Aviles was asked to play for Puerto Rico in 2009, he joked that his grandmother said she might disown him if he said no.

“I’ve never considered myself anything other than Puerto Rican,” Aviles said.

“We grew up in the same culture (as on the island). It just so happened to be in New York. Everybody knows the term ‘New Yorican.’ The culture we always had, right down to Christmas, having our pernil, arroz con gandules, all the food, the alcapurrias. I never knew anything different.

“We watch baseball, this is what we do. This is what we love. It was never, ‘I hope I have a chance to play for the U.S.’ It was always, ‘I hope I have a chance to play for Puerto Rico’ because I knew how much it meant to my grandparents and my parents if I could put on this uniform. I know how prideful they are watching their grandson. I know how prideful my parents are watching their son putting on this uniform.

“For me there’s no words to put that in perspective. Because to see them happy, that’s my happiness. It’s no different than looking at my kids when they’re smiling and they’re excited. That’s my happiness.”

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