It’s not that hard to get overlooked in a stacked Dominican Republic lineup that could pass the MLB All-Star Game test.
In fact, in a must-win game for his team on Thursday night, manager Tony Pena left out of his starting nine: Future Hall of Fame third baseman Adrian Beltre, 2016 NL hits leader Jean Segura and 2016 MLB stolen-base leader Jonathan Villar, who has become something of an afterthought in this tournament.
Instead, Pena was able to write in Manny Machado, Robinson Canó and Jose Reyes — and who could object to them? Pena also wanted Starling Marte back in center field, mainly for his superior defense in what was anticipated — and turned out to be — a low-scoring game.
And then there was Gregory Polanco lurking down in the eight hole. The Pirates’ emerging 25-year-old outfielder no longer is a secret around MLB, not after a breakout 2016 in which he set career-highs in homers (22) and RBIs (58), totaled 58 extra-base hits and led NL right fielders in assists.
And now Polanco is coming out on the WBC stage as well. He broke up a scoreless game in the fifth inning with a home run to right field off Jhoulys Chacin, catching a low two-seamer that tailed back into his power zone, and driving it 387 feet.
“He worked me in the first at-bat (a groundout to second base), inside and then away,’’ Polanco said. “I knew I would have another opportunity.’’
Polanco also singled off reliever Jose Castillo to lead off the seventh. That gave him four two-hit games and a .533 tournament batting average (8-for-15).
“Gregory has done a fantastic job,’’ Pena said. “On this team, everybody can play.’’
An overpowering bullpen kept the shutout intact behind starter Edinson Volquez, and the favored Dominican squad is back to 1-1 in Pool F play, needing to beat Team USA on Saturday to advance. Meanwhile, a loss has all but eliminated Venezuela.
“When you lose (3-1 to Puerto Rico in Tuesday’s Pool F opener), you open your eyes and you say, ‘it’s not so simple,’’’ Pena said.
Bullpening, DR style: Pena can call on as many as four MLB closers in his pen, so it’s no surprise to see a combined 4.2-inning shutdown of an injury-depleted Venezuelan offense by five Dominican relievers — none of whom were named Fernando Rodney.
Dellin Betances, Alex Colome and Jeurys Familia finished off the final three innings, but lefty Fernando Abad of the Red Sox got two of the more important outs in the fifth on a double-play grounder off Ender Inciarte’s bat to escape a first-and-third situation.
“There’s no question, we have a great bullpen,’’ Pena said. “I told them before the game, ‘I won’t save anybody today. I want to use anybody at any time. Just be ready.’’’
Machado Madness: It’s the web gem of the tournament so far: A 5-3 putout in the top of the sixth inning, courtesy of Manny Machado — and don’t forget Carlos Santana, either.
Machado started it with a spectacular backhand grab of Miguel Cabrera’s hard smash on the foul line. Momentum carried Machado to about 10 feet in foul territory before his throw across the diamond pulled Santana off the bag. After picking the low throw, Santana dove back on the bag before Cabrera could get there.
“That boy (Machado)… he’s not human,’’ Polanco said. “He’s from another planet. It’s great to be behind him (in left field) and watch him play.’’
Just for a second…: When Dominican right fielder Jose Bautista led off the bottom of the sixth with a hard, ground ball single, it set up the same scenario that resulted in the punch heard round the baseball world — and the ensuing Blue Jays-Rangers brawl — last May 15.
That’s because playing second base for Venezuela was Rougned Odor. Alas, the next hitter — Nelson Cruz — smashed a hard ground ball right at Odor, who flipped it to shortstop Alcides Escobar to start a 4-6-3 double play.
By Tony DeMarco