Win or go home time in World Baseball Classic
With six straight tournament wins going into its World Baseball Classic semifinal matchup with the Netherlands on Monday night in Los Angeles, Team Puerto Rico is showing the game’s fans around the globe that perhaps blondes, indeed, do have more fun.
The Puerto Rican players have dyed their hair blonde, a symbol of comradery that has spread to the island territory’s baseball fans both there and in the United States since the team opened its play in Pool D of the tournament with a 10-0 rout of Venezuela 10 days ago.
It started as a gesture of friendship between Puerto Rico-born, Florida-raised middle infielders Javier Baez and Francisco Lindor, who have played against each other from their prep school years through the 2016 World Series and are now combining with superstar Carlos Correa and Bronx-born TJ Rivera to form one of the best defensive infields ever assembled.
"I think it's awesome. It shows the unity we have as a team," infielder Mike Aviles told ESPN. "It wasn't something we did just to do, it was like, 'We're going to do something together for brotherhood.' ... When you have a team like that, it shows the solidarity with everybody. It shows that unity, that brotherhood, and that's what we're all about.
"It's to the point where people in Puerto Rico, in Little League and things like that, they're dyeing their hair because they want to show, 'We're with you guys. We can't be there but we're with you guys.' It just shows how a small little island can come together and do something big."
As noticeable as the players are when they remove their caps, their skill on the field during the tournament has attracted even more wows. Future Hall of Famer Yadier Molina has been the team’s catalyst, guiding the team’s pitching staff and going 6 for 17 with two home runs. Veteran star Carlos Beltran has eight hits in 17 at-bats, as well.
"I would like to play 162 games with these guys, because this is a special moment," said Correa, who shifted over to third base to keep Lindor at shortstop. "We love each other, we take care of each other. We've got each other's back. We are having an incredible moment."
Riding the hot bat of Wladimir Balentien who is 13-for-22 with three home runs and 10 RBIs in the tournament, the Netherlands has overcome a first-round upset by Israel and a second-round loss to Japan to reach the semifinal game against Puerto Rico (MLB Network 9 pm ET), which was runner-up to the Dominican Republic in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Balentien who played three years in the major leagues and is now with the Yakult Swallows in Japan, anchors a batting order that also includes current big leaguers Xander Bogaerts, Jonathan Schoop, Jurickson Profar and Andrelton Simmons.
And while Didi Gregorious has left the team with an apparent shoulder injury and won’t be available for the semifinals or final, the team added Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who was a catcher on the 2009 Netherlands team that upset the Dominican Republic.
“It means a lot to the country,” Jansen said after joining the team. “We’re just trying to put ourselves up there on the map and show how good we can be.”
Team USA will play Japan, which won the first two World Baseball Classics (2006 and 2009), in the other semifinal matchup on Tuesday at 9 pm ET. The championship game will be played at historic Dodger Stadium on Wednesday at 9 pm ET.