Hermosillo, Mexico, February 7-8, 2013 — In September 1988, the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees “treated” me to the longest live ballgame I ever witnessed in person, a 5-4 Yankee walkoff that took a little more than six hours. Twenty-five years later, I got to see a similar contest, 18 innings again, and a full hour longer. Only this one was broadcast to me, attentively watching in my recliner, over my TV, and in Spanish.
It took a real marathon to settle the 2013 Caribbean Series. The heavily favored Dominican Republic team, fielding the most current or one-time major leaguers – Hanley Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, Fernando Tatis, Jordany Valdespin, Julio Lugo, Fernando Rodney, Tony Pena, Jr., Jhonny Nunez – would have already won the Championship in former years with its 5-1 record in the round robin games. But in 2013, a Championship game pitting the top two finishers was added.
As it was, the Dominicans’ route to the final was not as easy as their record seemed to indicate. They were pressed to extra innngs twice in their six games, a 6-4 loss to Puerto Rico that extended to 11 frames on Monday, one day after outlasting Mexico 6-5 in 10. Through five days they were 4-1 and their three pursuers all stood at 2-3. As the DR posted their fifth win Wednesday, Mexico managed to advance to the final with a 10-0 shutout of Puerto Rico, a victory achieved behind the no-hit, no-run pitching of eventual Series MVP, Luis Mendoza, of the Kansas City Royals; a Barbaro Carnizares home run; and two doubles by Marlon Byrd, who just signed a 2013 minor-league deal with the New York Mets.
So although Mexico had managed to win just three of six games, they were in the final, and technically as the visiting team (the DR did bat second, getting “last licks”). The Series was held in Mexico, and the crowd largely favored their home team. The two teams played a tight, low-scoring game; they took turns, each scoring on a fielder’s choice, and then Mexico took a 2-1 lead on a bad-hop base hit in the fifth. The home-standing fans shared their love with veteran right-handed starter Rodrigo Lopez, long ago of the Orioles, as he held the favored team to one run into the eighth.
The crowd was clearly proud of the brand-new Estadio Sonora in Hermosillo, Mexico. There has been talk that with an expansion that would roughly double its current seating capacity of 16,000 the Arizona Diamondbacks might host a regular season major league baseball series here, so it was a big thing that the hometown team made the final.
Once Tampa Bay Ray closer Fernando Rodney pitched the top of the ninth for the Dominican Republic, ex-Met and -Yank and current Oriole reliever Luis Ayala came on in the bottom half for the save. But one-time Toronto minor leaguer Ricardo Nanita crushed a leadoff home run, and the game went to extra innings tied at 2-2.
In the bottom of the 10th a leadoff single drove Ayala from the mound, and a muffed play on a sac bunt had Mexico in trouble. But a perfectly executed wheel play on an ensuing hard bunt toward third helped the Mexicans escape, with veteran lefty Dennis Reyes getting the third out.
Rodney pitched through the 11th inning, and Tony Pena, Jr., came out to pitch the 12th. It seemed a matter of time, as the Dominican team was threatening every inning; through 11 frames they had collected 11 hits to just three for Mexico. Hanley Ramirez batted with the winnng run on second in the 10th; Tejada pushed center fielder Chris Roberson deep into the warning track with a leadoff drive in the 13th. Mexico’s Mike Benacka recorded six outs into that frame, but following a walk and stolen base, he was replaced by Edgar Gonzalez, who got the third out.
With the clock striking 2:40 EST, and the game now in the 14th, one-time Yankee Karim Garcia gave Mexico its second lead with a first-pitch leadoff home run to right center. Hermosillo is in the Mountain Time Zone, but even there it was approaching 1 a.m., and no one in the crowd had left. Would Gonzalez come out for the bottom half? Would he close it out?
He had his work cut out for him: Jose Ramirez, Jordany Valdespin, Hanley Ramirez, Ricardo Nanita, Miguel Tejada. He went 0-2 on Ramirez, but walked him. Valdespin tried to bunt but swung and fouled off a 3-1, then a 3-2 pitch, then he walked too. Hanley’s bunt (which surprised me) forced Ramirez at third. Nanita forced Hanley at second on a grounder to third; Ramirez’s hard slide broke up the double play, saving the game really, and he hobbled off the field. Tejada tied it with a hard single to right. Donell Linares struck out: onto the 15th inning.
Pena was replaced by a lefty following the first of three straight strike outs. In the bottom half, Marco Carrillo came on for Gonzalez after another walk, and retired the side. Canizares was hit by a pitch in the 16th, but the third out came on a great play at third. Once Valdespin led off the bottom half of the 16th with a single, Hanley hit away, but the lead runner was erased on a sparkling 4-6 force. Ramirez took second on a deep fly to left, and Tejada received a free pass. But Linares, hitting .280 with five rbi’s in the Series, failed again, bouncing back to the box.
The extended play was taking its toll. Many players were affected by minor, and some not so minor, dings and scrapes. Hanley had a slight limp; Canizares was moving gingerly after being hit by a pitch; Robison, whose game is his legs, took a pitch off his thigh while bunting for a strike. After a two-out Rosario single, wild pitch, and intentional walk in the bottom of the 17th, Valdespin fouled a ball off his foot, then further injured himself trying to run out a grounder to end the frame.
Then with one out in the top of the 18th, as just the sixth Mexican hit of the night, Douglas Clark lifted an opposite-field fly to deep right. It barely cleared the wall for a 4-3 lead. Now Carrillo would need to close, as Gonzalez had failed to four innings earlier. A fly to right, a bouncer to the mound, and it was Tejada at the plate one run down with two outs yet again. He singled to right, as he had before. Linares would get one more chance. He flied out to right at 4:42 a.m. EST, seven hours and 33 minutes after the contest had begun.
I tip my Yankee cap to the players on both sides, and to those on all four teams. They battled gamely, bravely, and left nothing on the field. I offer a salute to the Mexican fans as well. I saw no empty seats when the game ended. None of them could have gotten home before 3 a.m. by their own local time. And last, and never least, kudos to me. After all, it was 5 a.m. here!