MIAMI — The blaring vuvuzelas and pounding drums started early Saturday night at Marlins Park, long before Marcus Stroman took the mound to do what many figured would be extremely unlikely, if not impossible.
His assignment was to contain one of the most powerful lineups on the planet, assembled by the Dominican Republic to defend its World Baseball Classic title.
Saddled by Team USA’s own pitiful tournament history, Stroman stood at the center of the largest crowd (37,446) to ever assemble at the retractable-roof stadium and forced the overwhelming majority rooting for the Dominican Republic to sit in bewildered silence, stunned by his mastery of their heroes.
Stroman held the fierce Dominican hitters to three singles through 4 2⁄3 scoreless innings — one didn’t leave the infield — and struck out four. The real prize, however, had to be Blue Jays pal Jose Bautista, whom Stroman locked up by throwing him a knee-bending curveball with the count 3-and-2.
“One through nine, it’s an All-Star lineup, essentially,” Stroman said. “You really have to be on your game. But I love games like this. I feel like I’m able to really get up and be in the moment, and the bigger the moment is, the bigger my stuff plays. The fact that we can have a playoff atmosphere like this in March is pretty special. It was a blast.”
For him, sure. But what made Stroman’s performance even more impressive was the fact that the rest of Team USA’s pitching staff could not come close to matching it as the bullpen blew a 5-0 lead in a stunning 7-5 loss to the Dominican Republic.
Manny Machado woke up the crowd in the sixth inning with a 435-foot home run off Tanner Roark, Stroman’s replacement, and Andrew Miller allowed a pair of homers in the eighth to complete the U.S. collapse.
“I think it was my fault,” Roark said. “I got them going. I gave them the motivation and the confidence to do what they did.”
Miller, last October’s invincible relief pitcher, let a 5-3 lead slip away by hitting Bautista, surrendering a single to Carlos Santana and then teeing up a long three-run shot by Nelson Cruz, who pulled it inside the leftfield foul pole as the stadium erupted in ear-splitting approval. One out later, Starling Marte took Miller over the rightfield wall.
“I feel terrible,” Miller said. “I blew a game we have control of the entire time. I didn’t do my job. I stunk.”
It was a shocking reversal. Stroman, all 5-8 of him, had pretty much owned the brash, bulky defending champs. Working against the clock of the Classic’s 65-pitch limit, he almost made it through the fifth, but Marte slapped pitch No. 64, a flat sinker, into leftfield for the hit that finally ended his party.
The effort was appreciated. Stroman walked off to the loudest U.S. ovation, which still was only a fraction of the Dominican-produced decibel levels that later wound up shaking the ballpark after his departure.
“When you’re pitching for your country, with that playoff atmosphere out there, a lot’s at stake,” Stroman said. “So I just did everything in my power to limit a really good offense.”
Stroman’s best back-to-back sequence was in the fourth, when he struck out Bautista and Santana. Bautista froze on the 80-mph curve and Santana took a flailing hack at a nasty two-seam fastball.
The Stroman-Bautista showdown was something both seemed to be looking forward to, as strange as it would be for the Toronto teammates and good friends to face each other.
When he first stepped to the plate, Bautista gave an exaggerated wink to Stroman to acknowledge his buddy, but it was game on from that point. After Stroman rung up Bautista, he spun off the mound, swinging his arms in a celebratory strut. He denied there would be any trash-talking back in the Jays’ clubhouse, though.
“Nah, that’s my guy,” Stroman said. “I love Bautista. He’s been huge for my career. He took me under his wing when I was very young coming up in the organization. We’ll just leave it at this.”