03/16/2009 1:27 AM ET
Netherlands proved itself to world
Confidence, team spirit carried Dutch through impressive run
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
MIAMI -- If nothing else, scads of fans across North America have now heard of honkbal.
The Netherlands' eye-opening run at the World Baseball Classic ended on Sunday night with a 9-3 loss to the United States. But anyone who watched the Dutch team play in the Classic likely came away impressed with the brand of baseball played in Holland. Even in defeat, even against teams with superior talent, The Netherlands was always competitive and rarely beat itself.
Their two wins over the Dominican Republic drew the most attention, but the Dutch players may have showed just as much in hanging close with Venezuela and Puerto Rico. The Netherlands never faced anything but the elite baseball nations in this tournament and always looked like it belonged.
"When you're playing sports, you want to win every game no matter what," Dutch catcher Sidney de Jong said. "And I think it was pretty important to show everybody we can play baseball. We did. That's a big achievement. We knew we were going to have a hard time beating the Dominicans or Puerto Rico, and we did twice. Not once, twice. So everybody saying that's a fluke the first time, we did it the second time."
The Dutch style of baseball was an old one. They didn't hit all that much, so they had to win with run prevention. And for five games, they did that exceptionally. The Netherlands allowed a total of 14 runs in five games before the slipup against Team USA. Starter Rick VandenHurk and a series of relievers couldn't keep the United States team quiet, but they're not alone in that boat.
"Collectively, they were able to do something that was very special," manager Rod Delmonico said. "No one gave us a chance, but it just showed what happens when a group of players come together with one common goal and play for the name on the front of their jersey instead of the name on the back of their jersey. They played with a lot of energy. I think that showed tonight. We could have easily have folded the tent and quit, but these guys did not quit from the day we started practice in Holland and went to Pirate City and then to San Juan and then here, of course."
The nobody-believed-in-us refrain has long since become cliched in sports. In this case, however, it was entirely true. No self-respecting analyst envisioned anyone but Puerto Rico and the Dominican emerging from the first round of pool play. Even after The Netherlands beat Team Dominicana once, it was widely expected that the Dominicans would roar back and advance at Holland's expense.
Instead, the upset was repeated. And in the same fashion -- pitching, defense and just enough offense.
"We had good weeks," de Jong said. "Winning against the Dominicans twice is awesome. Nobody expected us to get through Round 1, and we did. In the first round we played the Dominicans twice and Puerto Rico twice. That's not the easiest pool to be in. and we just clutched up. As a group, we fought and we won. Now we're here in Miami. OK, our tournament is done, too bad, but we played good games."
The problem came at the end, when both halves of the equation fell short.
In the opener of the second round, the pitching and defense were just as good as ever. Two mistakes by starter Sidney Ponson led to two runs, but The Netherlands was in it until the end against Venezuela. It just could not convert on its few chances against starter Carlos Silva and the Venezuelan bullpen.
In the second game, the pitching finally let down. And three runs -- equal to the club's highest output in any game in the tournament -- were nowhere near enough. Still, the mood after the game was less despondent than proud and appreciative. Two defeats did not sour what this team managed to accomplish.
"We have played hard," said Randall Simon, one of the few established Major Leaguers on the Dutch team. "We have given everything we got every single day, and at the outset, we had confidence. I'm very proud of my team, very proud of my manager, very proud of every single teammate because they put everything out. And now I know that we lost, but we can go home with our head up high because Netherlands during the next Classic, I know that lots of people are going to respect us more because nobody thought that we would be here at this time. ... I'm 1,000 percent sure that we, the Dutch team, played baseball amongst the best baseball players in this 2009 Classic."
So it's already time to begin thinking about the next time around.
"We've got a lot of good ballplayers," de Jong said. "On paper, we're not as good as all those guys, but I think we showed them how far you can get with team spirit and fighting. We're not bad. We're pretty good, actually."