March Madness came early this year.
The NCAA college basketball tournament is still a few weeks ways away, but Cinderella is already dancing after Kalian Sams hit a game-winning sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth inning to send the Kingdom of the Netherlands into the 2013 World Baseball Classic semifinals with 7-6 victory over Cuba on Monday night at Tokyo Dome.
"I can look back to two historic days before this one," the Kingdom of the Netherlands' manager Hensley Meulens said. "One of them I was a part of, beating the Cubans at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. The other one was becoming the world champions for the first time in the history of Dutch baseball in 2011, against Cuba, in Panama [at the Baseball World Cup].
|Bracket | Full scoreboard|
"This is the No. 1 best game that the Dutch have ever played. Coming from behind, tying the game up and taking the game in the bottom of the ninth. This game will go down as the biggest game in Dutch history .. .so far. There's more to come."
More may come soon as the win means the Kingdom of the Netherlands will join Japan at San Francisco's AT&T Park during the championship round of the Classic, which begins Sunday .
"That's why we're here," said Wladimir Balentien, an outfielder for the Kingdom of the Netherlands. "We're here to play, win.
"It feels great. This is something special we've got going on."
Cuba bowed out in the second round for the second consecutive Classic. Errors and miscues on the base paths contributed to the 2006 finalists' exit this year.
"It's hard to win the way we played," Cuban manager Victor Mesa said through a translator. "An elimination game is like a playoff game. If we can't play good defense, it's always tough to beat a good opponent."
The Dutch have had the Cubans' number as of late. The Kingdom of the Netherlands won the teams' second-round matchup on Friday and also beat the Cubans twice during the Baseball World Cup in 2011.
"It's true," Mesa said, "we cannot beat the Netherlands." The Cubans took a 6-4 lead in the eighth on an RBI single from Yasmani Tomas and Eriel Sanchez's sacrifice fly.
The Dutch, missing three players due to injury, bounced right back on Andrelton Simmons' game-tying two-run home in the bottom of the eighth.
"We had a couple of injuries and I felt like I had to step up," Simmons said. "I was looking at the pitcher, and he was coming in for the same pitch, and he left one where I like it pretty much, so I didn't miss it. I was really happy with tying the game up."
The Kingdom of the Netherlands loaded the bases with one away in the bottom of the ninth to set the stage for Sams' sacrifice fly.
"I tried to get the ball up in the air, and they were playing up and in," Sams said. "So I'm happy I put the ball in play and we got a run."
The Dutch drive to the semifinals was nearly derailed by a sudden onset of injuries.
A wrist injury kept Nationals outfielder Roger Bernadina out of the starting lineup; Balentien, the starting right fielder, was lost to what looked to be a strained quad in the second; and Yurendell DeCaster, who started at third and replaced Balentien in right, left with a leg injury in the fifth.
Despite the loss of three starters, the Kingdom of the Netherlands mustered enough strength to win a thrilling game.
"Everybody played together," Balentien said. "We missed our center fielder, then I went down, but those guys never give up. Those guys picked themselves up. I appreciate what they do. They just take care of business"
The game took place on the two-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan at 2:46 p.m. local time on March 11, 2011.
"My thoughts go out to those families still today that lost loved ones all over Japan," Meulens said.
A moment of silence was held before the game, and seven children from affected areas participated in a pregame ceremony.
"We wish them well," Mesa said before the game. "I respect all the Japanese people. They are very hard workers, they are very honest, and they are very independent. So I am hoping all the people move forward."
Andruw Jones got the Kingdom of the Netherlands out to an early lead with a sacrifice fly in the third, and Curt Smith drove in another run with an RBI single.
Cuba struck back in the top half of the fourth, on an RBI single by Jose Fernandez and a solo homer to straightaway center by Jose Abreu.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands scored a pair of runs without recording a hit in the bottom of the fourth, but Mesa's curious decision to use three consecutive pinch-hitters in the fifth helped set the stage for a two-run double by Yulieski Gourriel that tied the score at 4 for the Cubans.
Kingdom of the Netherlands reliever Loek Van Mil threw a scoreless inning to earn the win. Cuba's Yander Guevara was charged with the loss.
Jason Coskrey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.