Sunday, December 10, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays players caught up in excitement of World Baseball Classic

MIAMI — The fact that Rays closer Fernando Rodney shot an imaginary arrow Tuesday for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic came as little surprise to those who know his trademark post-save theatrics.

But the unique on-field emotion displayed by the Dominicans throughout their thrilling, come-from-behind 5-4 victory over Italy was something Yankees star Robinson Cano says "you never see in the big leagues."

They joyously jumped over the dugout railing to share high fives and hugs after every big hit, exuding chest-bumping pride as they overcame a four-run deficit and avoided the biggest upset in WBC history. When it was over, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes danced near home plate, with Rodney aiming his arrow above the centerfield scoreboard.

"It goes to the top of the world," Rodney said.

But, to get there, the arrow had to pass over the nearly bare outfield stands at Marlins Park, with the announced afternoon attendance of 14,482 — dominated by Dominican fans — another reflection of how the Olympic-like tournament has yet to be completely embraced on American soil.

There was a more packed, and passionate, 32,872 at Team USA's 7-1 win over Puerto Rico in the nightcap. But it still served as a stark contrast from the record-setting and rowdy crowds that recently rocked venues like San Juan, Puerto Rico and Taiwan.

"It's not even close to the way it feels (in San Juan)," said Rays catcher Jose Molina, who got to play with younger brother Yadier for Puerto Rico. "There, it was awesome. It's just normal (here)."

The Rays' Ben Zobrist, a member of Team USA, said the Americans' success is a huge key in the tourney catching on in the country. The Americans are 10-8, with no championship game appearances, in three WBCs. But they've won two straight, and Dominican manager Tony Pena calls the U.S. the "team to beat" heading into Thursday's second-round showdown in Miami.

"I think anybody that comes to a game really can feel the electricity and the excitement in the air," Zobrist said. "And I think if we do well as a team, I think it'll bring more people out to feel that same kind of playoff atmosphere."

Zobrist felt that excitement in the first round in Arizona, though he noted that the stadium was packed by "tons" of Mexico fans. "They filled the whole stands up," he said. "There were a lot of those giant noisemakers."

Zobrist is relieved the Americans made it to Miami, having faced elimination — and embarrassment — before rallying twice Sunday against the Canadians for a 9-4 win. It piqued the country's interest, the most-watched non-postseason game ever on MLB Network, averaging 760,000 viewers.

"Everything was riding on that," Zobrist said.

Zobrist has enjoyed the ride, getting to play on an "All-Star team" and represent his country. He has received his share of playing time, hitting .375 while moving around defensively. He tried first and third during exhibitions and started in rightfield Sunday and DH Tuesday. "The Rays can rest assured I'm working on all aspects of my game," he quipped.

Zobrist watched from the dugout tunnel Tuesday as Rodney saved his third straight game in the WBC. Rodney has yet to give up a hit in four appearances (31/3 innings), hitting 98 mph against the Italians and looking a lot like he did during his historic, All-Star season in 2012. In each WBC outing, Rodney has shot his arrow, even getting teammates to strike the pose during a group photo Thursday in San Juan.

His Rays teammate, Zobrist, can wait until April for arrows to fly.

"I hope we don't see him on the mound (Thursday)," Zobrist said, smiling. "Because that probably means they're ahead."

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]

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