Netherlands' prayers answered


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Late in the game, after each successive inning in which the impossible really did happen, Netherlands first baseman Randall Simon paced around the area near his position and pleaded with his dead mother for a miracle. Simon's team had fought the powerful Dominican Republic team to a draw in Tuesday's elimination game, making it the night of the improbable, so who was to say she would not listen?

"If you're here with me," Simon said to her, "talk to the Lord, because these guys really deserve it."

After Yurendell DeCaster's hard-hit ground ball glanced off Dominican first baseman Willy Aybar's glove, allowing Gene Kingsale to score the deciding run in the Netherlands' 2-1, 11-inning win, Simon raced from the dugout to a spot behind third base. There, he got on his knees and said a prayer of thanks to his mother, and began to sob uncontrollably. He soon was mobbed and buried by a crowd of his teammates.

With the win, the Netherlands advanced to the second round of the World Baseball Classic. The mighty Dominicans, a favorite to win this tournament, are going home after two astonishing losses to the Netherlands.

"I don't have big names, but I've got some long names," Netherlands coach Rod Delmonico joked.

Only minutes before the celebration, the Netherlands team seemed sunk. Finished. Dutch right fielder Gene Kingsale, with the Dominican's Jose Reyes on first base, misread a fly ball hit by Jose Bautista. The looping line drive sneaked under Kingsale's glove and rolled all the way to the wall, allowing Reyes to score.

The Dominicans jumped out of the dugout, and the Dutch players slumped in their seats. Netherlands pitching coach Bert Blyleven went to the mound to console reliever Leon Boyd.

"Hey, we're going to win this thing," Blyleven told Boyd. "Just get the final out."

Boyd had ignored this type of advice most of his career. It was simply coachspeak.

"But this time, I had a feeling we were going to do something," Boyd said.

So Boyd composed himself and got his team out of the inning, allowing the chance for a comeback.

"How the hell did we come back in the 11th?" Netherlands reliever Rob Cordemans said. "I don't know how we did it. I don't even remember. I was just running all over the place. I don't even know what I'm saying."

What else was there to say? Instead of trying to explain, they danced and yelled at the top of their lungs. They hugged each other and poured water and soda and anything else they could find on each other. Soon each player was drenched or splattered with shaving cream.

"This is as exciting as winning a World Series," Blyleven said.

Simon, a veteran, was a popular target.

At one point, the players gathered for a ceremonial dance and chant. Before each game, these players, some from the islands and some from the homeland, had conducted this same chant for luck. Some of the Netherlands players didn't know the words to the song, but they sang anyway.

"It works, so I guess we'll be sticking with it," Boyd said.

In Santo Domingo, they weep.

"I'm not going to ask [fans] to be happy, because I know how it feels," pitcher Pedro Martinez said. "And I'm a winner, but I don't like to go home losing. And I lost today. Only God knows -- only God knows why we lost."

The Dominicans were shaken from the moment they arrived in San Juan on Thursday. A late-night flight got them to their hotel at roughly 10 p.m. Many players and their families could not immediately check in. Some players did not even have a room. Manager Felipe Alou had to sleep on the floor because his family's room was not ready. Some players did not receive their luggage until almost 4 a.m.

That night would prove not to be the worst day of their stay in San Juan.

The following day, the Dominicans were stunned by the Netherlands 3-2. It was dismissed as an aberration.

"We're way better than them," Reyes said Sunday.

They were not.

Alou had foreshadowed Aybar's 11th-inning misplay in a chat with reporters before the game. Alou explained why he started David Ortiz at first base, despite the fact that Big Papi does not regularly play there.

"He has more experience at first base than anybody," Alou said. "What other professional do I have to play first base?"

When asked who the best first baseman on the team was, Alou quickly responded: "Me."

Alou, who did not want Ortiz to play first the whole game, plugged in Aybar as a defensive replacement. Aybar's misplay was simply another example of a miscast Dominican roster.

There were too many players who chose not to participate because of injury. There were too many players who lacked versatility. There were too many complaints about how the format of the WBC worked against the Dominicans.

"Of course, we're disappointed," Alou said. "We've been called the republic of baseball. This is not the end. We are going to continue to be the republic of baseball. Our guys will be healthier in the next Classic. I hope more than any time now, after this defeat, that there's going to be another Classic. The republic of baseball will avenge some of the stuff that happened."

When Alou was a young man, he often played in youth tournaments against Curacao. In those tournaments, the Dominicans always won easily, usually by a wide margin.

"We would score a ton of runs," he remembered.

Surely, no bigger testament exists than this to baseball's growing popularity around the world, and even Alou could appreciate that.

When Alou walked to the podium for his postgame news conference, he encountered the Netherlands team, which was just finishing its news conference. Alou hugged Delmonico, DeCaster and pitcher Tom Stuifbergen and told them, "I'm pulling for you."

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.