Puerto Rico’s 6-5 win sets up must-win for U.S. against Dominican Republic

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SAN DIEGO (AP) Puerto Rico is squeezing every bit of fun it can out of this World Baseball Classic.

Come Monday night, the party moves on to Dodger Stadium.

Yadier Molina and Puerto Rico advanced to the WBC semifinals after scoring four runs in the first inning and then holding on for a wild 6-5 win against the United States on Friday night.

When Edwin Diaz struck out Josh Harrison to end the game with Brandon Crawford standing on third base, players raced out of the Puerto Rico dugout to join the celebration on the infield. After a few minutes in the clubhouse, the team returned to the field waving small flags and ran over to celebrate with a large group of fans on the first-base side who were chanting, beating drums, rattling noisemakers and waving flags.

“We are happy for the job all the guys have done,” Carlos Beltran said. “I think the boys have done a good job playing for their country. We’re happy for our country and for our people. They are very proud of us and we hope to God we finish the mission.”

Puerto Rico advanced to the championship round for the second straight WBC. It reached the championship game in 2013 before losing to the Dominican Republic.

By clinching Pool F with a day to go, Puerto Rico (2-0) will play the Netherlands on Monday night at Dodger Stadium.

The other semifinal spot from Pool F will go to the winner of Saturday night’s game between the United States (1-1) and the Dominican Republic (1-1). That team will play Japan on Tuesday night.

Puerto Rico took a 4-0 lead in the first, watched Buster Posey and Adam Jones hit impressive home runs, and then benefited from a two-run, two-base, two-out throwing error in the sixth by third baseman Nolan Arenado, who won the Gold Glove Award in each of his first four big league seasons.

With most of the 32,463 fans on their feet and chanting in the top of the ninth, a U.S. rally fell just short. Crawford hit a two-run triple to the left-center gap off Diaz with two outs to pull the Americans within a run and spark chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

Diaz then struck out Josh Harrison for his second save to send the Puerto Ricans into a frenzy. Backup catcher Roberto Perez carried a Puerto Rican flag with him onto the field.

Puerto Rico can sweep the pool when it plays Venezuela (0-2) on Saturday afternoon. Puerto Rico beat the Dominican Republic 3-1 on Tuesday night.

“They are a very good team and they are doing a lot of things right,” U.S. manager Jim Leyland said. “You tip your hat to them.”

The United States will have to regroup to face a Dominican Republic team it lost to one week earlier in the opening round in Miami. In that game, Nelson Cruz hit a go-ahead, three-run home run in the eighth as the Dominicans rallied from five runs down to win 7-5.

Puerto Rico took a 4-0 lead on six straight singles and a sacrifice fly in first inning off Marcus Stroman.

Carlos Correa, Beltran and Molina had RBI singles in Puerto Rico’s opening onslaught. Stroman finally got an out when Rosario hit a sacrifice fly to make it 4-0. Molina tried taking third on the play but overran the bag and was tagged out. Stroman got Rivera to fly out to right to end it.

“The first inning was just incredible,” Beltran said. “It gave us so much confidence for the rest of the game.”

The United States pulled to 4-3 on Eric Hosmer‘s RBI single in the second and then homers by Posey leading off the fifth and Jones with one out in the sixth, both off starter Seth Lugo. Posey’s second homer of the tourney went an estimated 398 feet to left-center. Jones, who played at San Diego’s Morse High, homered for the second time in two games.

Puerto Rico regained a cushion in the sixth on the error by Arenado, who short-hopped a throw to first after fielding a grounder by Angel Pagan that took a high bounce.

Leadoff batter Javier Baez was hit by a pitch from Mychal Givens and stole second. Andrew Miller came on and walked Eddie Rosario. With T.J. Rivera batting, Baez and Rosario pulled a double steal. Rivera and pinch-hitter Kike Hernandez struck out. Pagan’s grounder took a wicked hop and Arenado fielded it above his shoulders. He got set, but his throw skipped past Hosmer, and Baez and Rosario scored.

“That is just part of the game,” Leyland said. “That is the human element of it. That is a great third baseman. I have no problem whatsoever with that.”

Lugo (1-0) allowed three runs and five hits in 5 2/3 innings, struck out two and walked one.

Stroman (0-1) allowed four runs and eight hits in 4 2/3 innings, struck out two and walked one.

Astros exemplify the player-unfriendly bent of analytics

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Even as recently as a decade ago, Sabermetrics was a niche interest among baseball fans. As various concepts began to gain acceptance in the mainstream, players slowly began to accept them as well. Players like Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke were hailed as examples of a new breed of player — one who marries his athleticism with the utilization of analytics. This year, much was made of certain players’ data-driven adjustments, including Daniel Murphy and J.D. Martinez. Both had great seasons as a result of focusing more on hitting more fly balls instead of ground balls and line drives.

Statistics can clearly benefit players. They can also be used against them, and not just by opposing players. The Astros, who are in the World Series for the first time since 2005, are a great example of this. The Astros spent a few years rebuilding after a complete overhaul of the front office, which included bringing in analytically-fluent Jeff Luhnow as GM after the 2011 season. That overhaul instilled so much confidence that, in 2014, Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter predicted that the Astros would win the 2017 World Series. He’s only four Astros wins away from being proven correct.

The Astros’ front office, though, took advantage of its players at various times throughout the process. Their success is owed, in part, to exploiting its players. On Twitter, user @chicken__puppet chained a few tweets together exemplifying this:

At its core, analytics is about optimization: getting the most bang for your buck. If you read Moneyball, you know this. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) quickly became synonymous with the field and $/WAR was a natural next step. Sabermetrics defaulted to ownership’s perspective, so highly-paid players who performed poorly were scorned. Cheap players who performed well were lauded.

It is no mere coincidence that once most front offices installed analytics departments, teams stopped handing out so many outrageous contracts to free agent first baseman/DH types. Instead, teams focused on signing their young players to long-term contract extensions to buy out their arbitration years ahead of time, ostensibly saving ownership and the team boatloads of money. Teams began to pay close attention to service time as well. Service time determines when a player becomes eligible for arbitration and free agency, so teams that are able to finagle their players’ service time can potentially delay that player’s free agency by a year. The Cubs tried to do this with third baseman Kris Bryant in 2015, as Craig wrote about.

There is a very real ethical component to covering and being a fan of Major League Baseball, despite the common plea to separate sports from politics. The Astros and Cubs aren’t the only ones exploiting their players; the Angels, for example, made some odd personnel choices earlier this season that happened to allow them to avoid paying some players incentive bonuses. Every front office, in one way or another, games the system because the system is set up to benefit ownership first and players second. And if the likes of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa can be taken advantage of so freely and openly, what hope does anyone else have?

Fans have been conditioned to group players and owners together as one group of rich people. In reality, the player earning $30 million has more in common with the office worker making $35,000 a year than with team owners. When fans hear about Correa making $507,500 instead of $550,000, or about free agent who wants a nine-figure contract, they wonder why he had the nerve to ask for so much money in the first place. We praise players, like Cliff Lee, who “leave money on the table.” Both the player and that fan, by virtue of existing and participating in this system, are locked in an eternal battle with those who cut their paychecks. Regardless of salary differences, the player deserves to benefit from the fruits of his labor as much as the office worker. Part of being a baseball fan should also include rooting for the players’ financial success and not just the owners’.

Praising the Astros for being smart and savvy will only create more incentive for other front offices to mimic these unethical behaviors. The whole theme of the World Series shouldn’t be about smart, analytically-inclined teams reaching the summit; it should in part be about teams getting ahead with a multitude of exploitative practices against their players.