By Paresh Dave
YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) – The Dominican Republic won the Olympic bronze medal in baseball on Saturday, with a pair of huge innings at the plate wrapping around South Korea’s one rally to secure a 10-6 victory.
The Caribbean country’s first-ever medal in a team sport will be celebrated in a nation where many of its 11 million people grow up playing baseball, with the poor using bottle caps or whatever they can find on the streets as a makeshift ball.
“To bring this bronze medal to the country means the world,” said Julio Rodriguez, the team’s top hitter in the tournament. “We’re a small island but we can compete.”
Missing out on the podium increased South Korean disappointment after they had lost to the United States in the semi-finals, denying them the chance of winning a second straight gold in baseball at the Games.
The team had two returnees, including former Major Leaguer Kim Hyun-soo, from 2008 when baseball last appeared in the Olympics. Kim, who homered on Saturday, shook hands with ex-pros from the Dominican side as he left the field.
The United States and Japan play for the first Olympic baseball gold in 13 years later on Saturday.
Oh Seung-hwan, the 39-year-old former St Louis Cardinals reliever, blew the game for South Korea, letting in five eighth-inning runs.
Oh said he had failed to handle the pressure and apologised to the team’s fans for their performance.
South Korea starter Kim Min-woo left before recording his second out as the Dominican Republic jumped to a 4-0 first-inning lead on home runs by Rodriguez and Juan Francisco, who nearly forced the ball into an adjacent park.
South Korea took a 6-5 lead with a four-run fifth inning amid drizzle.
But the ensuing roars and towel-waving from the South Korea dugout eventually gave way to celebrations from the Dominican Republic. They marked score after score in a five-run eighth inning with a merengue dance, accompanied by a band of team officials.
“Dance is what makes our country special – that happiness,” said team captain Emilio Bonificaio.
Major League Baseball teams have invested hundreds of millions of dollars since the 1990s to harness Dominican talent such as Rodriguez, who received a $1.75 million bonus when he joined the Seattle Mariners in 2017 at age 16.
Rodriguez scored twice and drove in two others on Saturday, and before leaving for the bus belted out a final “Let’s go!”
(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Ed Osmond)