Orioles reliever Pedro Strop assembled with his new World Baseball Classic Dominican teammates three weeks ago for their first workout in Tampa, and that's when the tone for an undefeated championship run was set.
The Dominican Republic has become the world's biggest baseball factory outside the United States, but the Dominican's first-round exit in the most recent WBC in 2009 was a disappointment that resonated throughout the entire Caribbean nation.
So Dominican manager Tony Pena's first message to his team was seemingly simple: "Be yourself."
"The thing was that we had some bad [history] the past couple of WBCs with people saying that guys were out of shape, that they didn't care, that they were just playing through the motions, a bunch of stuff," said Strop, who returned to Orioles camp from the WBC on Thursday. "So we came and we had a meeting during the first workout as a team together and at the meeting that day we talked about it and we said that we were going to change that [history].
"Overall, we were hungry."
Strop, coming off a breakout season in 2012 in which he spent most of the season as the Orioles' set-up man, played a tremendous part in the Dominican's success, pitching in several tight late-inning situations. He was 3-0 and threw 6 2/3 shutout innings in six tournament appearances.
His most important outing came in the championship game against Puerto Rico, when he came into the game in the seventh inning with two on and no out in a 3-0 game. Strop struck out the first two hitters he faced, Carlos Rivera and Pedro Valdes, before inducing a foul pop-up to third from Jesus Feliciano to end the threat.
Three times the tying run came to the plate, and each time Strop retired that hitter and celebrated by fist pumping and jumping into the air. With the Orioles, Strop points to the sky as he walks off the mound after every completed inning, but that was nothing compared to the way he danced around the mound after outs.
The Dominican players' histrionics — which included jumping out of the dugout during big scoring rallies and gatherings at the mound when closer Fernando Rodney shot an imaginary arrow into the air (something he does with much less fanfare during the regular season with the Rays) — became a talking point throughout the tournament, especially in a game in which players are taught from a young age to keep their emotions in check.
Other teams had their own unique displays. After the two-time champion Japanese team lost, its players lined up along the third base line and bowed to salute the crowd.
For the Dominican players, being themselves was playing with intense emotion.
"That's what everybody wanted," Strop said. "That's what we talked about at that first workout. Let's play ball the way we know how to play ball — the way we grew up playing. Let's play loud. We're playing for the Dominican Republic. Let's play like we grew up playing. Let's do whatever we know and that was the key to it.
"We told ourselves that we've got to do whatever we had to do to win. Everybody in that tournament is there because they can play baseball. We were like, 'OK let's not try to be so confident, let's just play the game the way we know how.'"
And for the 27-year-old Strop, who was signed out of the Dominican at the age of 16 as a shortstop, then was converted to a pitcher before battling arm injuries, it was one of the biggest highlights of his baseball career.
"It's up there," he said. "I still want to win a World Series, though."
Back in Sarasota, two Dominican-born Orioles players — Wilson Betemit and Alexi Casilla — had there own way of celebrating the win. The morning after the Dominican's title win, Casilla took a Dominican flag hanging in a hallway with flags from every country represented in the organization and hung it between his and Betemit's locker.
"Everybody in the Dominican waited for that, and you know in the last World Baseball Classic we lost and this year we did it," Betemit said. "We're happy about it. … Everybody plays baseball, we love baseball. We play it all year long. We play winter ball and everything. That's what we do in the Dominican."
Casilla said watching the Dominican team play in the WBC reminded him of the intensity of playing winter ball in the Dominican.
"I think we kind of play different than in the states," Casilla said. "In the states there are a lot of rules, but in our country we like to have a lot of fun and play loud and talk loud. Everything is like a joke and you have fun with it. That's our culture and that's how we play baseball over there.
"I have seven, eight years playing winter ball and it's crazy over there. You have a lot of fun. I never want to stop playing winter ball because of that because it's so much fun over there. That's the way we are. That's our culture. That's the way we grew up. That's the way we play baseball. Everybody knows each other and everybody is almost like family. Even if you get into fights, you don't really fight. We have brawls, everybody is shaking hands and giving hugs and stuff like that. So it's not a real fight "
As for Strop, he was pitching in several high-pressure situations in March and even made an extended outing of 1 2/3 innings, something that admittedly worried Orioles manager Buck Showalter.
Strop is a major part of the Orioles bullpen. He had a 1.43 ERA with 23 holds last August as the primary set-up man before hitting a rough stretch at the end of the season. He rebounded in the postseason, throwing 2 1/3 critical scoreless innings in the AL Division Series. And before leaving for the WBC, he allowed just one hit in three scoreless innings with five strikeouts and one walk.
Strop isn't worried that the stress of the WBC will affect him.
"For me, last year was my first full season in the major leagues so every year in March, I always saw them as intense innings because I'm trying to make the team," Strop said. "Even last year when I was out of options, I was fighting for a spot, so it's a little different but it's not. I'm just going to pitch how I know how to pitch. I'm not going to try to do anything different."
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