Baseball’s international tournament of the winter season came to a conclusion in Guadalajara, Mexico, as the Criollos de Caguas of Puerto Rico reigned victorious after defeating the Águilas Cibaeñas of the Dominican Republic in dramatic fashion.
The win capped an emotional season for Puerto Rico’s Criollos in a league that contemplated suspending the season in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In a shortened season, and playing in a neighboring town’s baseball park, Caguas won the domestic league and the Caribbean Series title, successfully defending the crown at home and abroad.
Here are five things of note in the Caribbean Series:
1. Puerto Rico wins back-to-back titles
For the first time in 20 years, one team has won the Caribbean Series consecutively, emulating the run made by the Dominican Republic’s Águilas Cibaeñas in 1997 and 1998.
Puerto Rico was able to mount formidable comebacks in the semifinal against Venezuela via a dramatic grand slam, and then in the final against Dominican Republic, scoring eight runs in their final two innings.
2. Mexico crashes out at home
Despite an eclectic mix of former Major League Baseball players such as pitchers Sergio Mitre (Cubs, Yankees) and Edgar González (Diamondbacks), as well as infielder Alfredo Amezaga (Angels, Marlins), all managed by Benjamin Gil (retired infielder for the Rangers, Angels), the Tomateros finished the tournament 1-3.
The Mexicans lost their first three and drew the boobirds from the home crowd for their last-place performance.
How bad were things for the hosts? Their best play of the tournament came from the stands, when a fan wearing a Mexico hat made a spearing grab during the Cuba vs. Venezuela tilt.
3. MLB prospects show off skills
Puerto Rico’s Anthony García was named the tournament’s MVP after leading all players with three home runs, eight RBIs and eight runs. García’s clutch grand slam against Venezuela sparked his team’s comeback in the semifinal match, an eventual 6-5 win.
Following his performance, the 26-year-old left fielder will roll into spring training with the Oakland A’s, attempting to win the big league spot that did not come in previous years with the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that drafted him.
Jesmuel Valentín, son of former MLB infielder Jose Valentín, also stuck out for Puerto Rico. The 23-year-old Philadelphia Phillies second base prospect scored six times during the tournament and hit .370 with a home run and three RBIs.
Elsewhere, the Dominican Republic’s Edwin Espinal hit .280 and drove in six runs. The Detroit Tigers signed the 23-year-old first baseman to a minor league deal after the 2017 season, following a stint in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization.
4. A billionaire, a boxer and a former president
Celebrities were commonplace during the tournament this year, as Mexican magnate and baseball fan Carlos Slim was called upon to inaugurate the Caribbean Series on Feb. 2. Slim was on hand last year as well for the World Baseball Classic in Guadalajara, but this year, he was joined by a pair of notable, if not peculiar, guests.
Guadalajara native Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez was on hand to toss the first pitch, after former U.S. President Bill Clinton handed the ball off to the three-time world champion. Clinton drew a standing ovation from the crowd, addressing them with a simple, “I love baseball. Enjoy the show.”
5. Close but no cigar for Dominican Republic
The Águilas Cibaeñas could’ve been forgiven for putting on a weak performance — their domestic championship series went to seven games, and they arrived in Mexico less than 48 hours after winning the Dominican winter league.
Spurred on by players such as Panama’s Christian Bethancourt (Brewers) and former Cubs outfielder Junior Lake, the Dominican Republic made the finals this year for the first time since 2013. Though Dominicans dominate in numbers among foreign players at the major league level (93 players present on Opening Day 2017 rosters), teams from the island nation have not been able to win the Caribbean Series since 2012, their longest drought.
The Águilas Cibaeñas made it to the finals of the Caribbean Series despite a couple of big losses in the first round — 15-4 against Venezuela and 7-1 against Mexico. In fact, they tied for the tournament’s worst offense (scoring 18 runs) and also allowed 27 runs, the most among all five teams.