The World Baseball Classic Quarterfinals are well underway as we head into the final weekend of the tournament. Last night saw a highly-anticipated contest between Puerto Rico and Mexico, featuring a pitching matchup — Marcus Stroman for Puerto Rico, Julio Urías for Mexico — that we may see once or twice during the regular season.
And boy, was it a matchup for the ages, as the Mexico pitching staff buckled down after giving up fours runs in the first to allow their lineup to claw back into the game and secure their first ever semifinals appearance.
Quarterfinal 4: Mexico 5 (4-1), Puerto Rico 4 (3-2)
At first, things looked pretty good for Mexico starter Julio Urías, who struck out shortstop Francisco Lindor to lead off the top of the first. Things went downhill for him pretty quickly, however. Kiké Hernández worked a walk, advanced to third on a Nelson Velazquez single, and scored when Emmanuel Rivera hit a sacrifice fly to right to give Puerto Rico an early 1-0 lead.
Five pitches later, that lead was 3-0, courtesy of a Javier Báez home run that registered 100.8 mph off the bat and traveled 367 feet.
Not to be outdone, Eddie Rosario launched the first pitch he saw 409 feet, with a 102 mph exit velo. Just like that, Puerto Rico had a 4-0 lead.
But Mexico did not go quietly. After that first inning, Urías settled down, and all things considered, his final line wasn’t all that bad: four runs on five hits, with four strikeouts and just one walk. The first inning homers aside, he did enough to keep his team in the game. The lineup took advantage, with Isaac Paredes homering in the bottom of the second and Alex Verdugo capping off a mini-rally in the fifth to shrink the deficit to just two.
Then the seventh inning came. Alexis Díaz took the mound to the blare of his injured brother’s trumpets. The stage was set for one of those poetic moments that we would talk about for decades. In reality, though, the inning was a disaster. Austin Barnes doubled to lead off the frame. Randy Arozarena walked on six pitches to put runners on first and second. Alex Verdugo walked on four pitches to load the bases with nobody out. Unable to find the strike zone, Díaz left the game after just three batters.
Jorge López came on in relief with an impossible task, and he almost escaped the inning unscathed by inducing a weak pop out by Joey Meneses and striking out Rowdy Tellez. Isaac Paredes, however, drilled a two-run single into left field that put runners on the corners.
Luis Urías followed that up with a single of his own, this time to right field, to take the lead.
Neither of these balls were particularly hard hit — Paredes’s hit registered just a 73.2 mph exit velocity, while Urías’s came in at 62.6 mph. But hits are hits, and RBI are RBI, and now, Mexico had a 5-4 lead.
Although the scoring ended here, Puerto Rico did not go down without a fight. In the eighth, MJ Melendez led off the inning with a walk, and Emmanuel Rivera drilled a line drive deep into left field. Left fielder Randy Arozarena — a player not typically known for his defense — made the catch of his life to shut down the rally before it started.
As an aside, for anyone who wonders just how big these games are to the players: after the game, Arozarena described the catch as the greatest moment of his career, even bigger than his postseason heroics.
Puerto Rico would also challenge in the ninth, with Christian Vázquez singling off former Yankee reliever Giovanny Gallegos to lead off the inning. Vimael Machín failed to bunt the runner over to second, popping out to the pitcher, while Martin Maldonado popped up to first base for the second out of the inning. Although Francisco Lindor battled back to slap a single up the middle on a 2-2 changeup, it would prove to be too little too late, as Kiké Hernández struck out looking on a slider right down the middle of the plate to end the game.
With the win, Mexico advances to the semifinals for the first time in World Baseball Classic history. Unfortunately for them, things don’t get any easier: they now have a date with Shohei Ohtani and undefeated Japan on Monday night.
Next at the WBC:
United States vs. Venezuela
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET on Friday, 3/17
Location: loanDepot Park, Miami