NEW YORK (AP) — Fan reception was warm when a pair of Dominican Winter League teams met to start a three-game series at Citi Field. The weather certainly was not.
More than 1,500 miles from their Caribbean ballparks, players from Águilas Cibaeñas and Tigres del Licey wore hoodies and ski caps as they prepared for Friday night’s opener at the New York Mets’ home.
“I got the big heater in the dugout. I was sitting right next to it. That helped out a lot,” Ronnie Williams said after pitching six innings for the win to lead Águilas over Tigres 3-0 on Friday night.
At a time of year when the ballpark is usually empty — the World Series finale was nine days earlier and the Mets last played on Oct. 1 — it was 52 degrees (11 Celsius) at gametime, 23 degrees below the temperature in Santo Domingo.
“It was cold out there. I realized when I came out of the game,” Williams said. “But during the game I was pretty locked in. I didn’t really feel it.”
A crowd of less than 10,000 was on hand at the 44,000-capacity ballpark for the first pitch. Announced attendance was 25,233 for the first of three exhibitions, which don’t count in the winter league standings. Tickets were priced at $47-$207 for the games. The advance sale for Saturday afternoon was 31,000.
José Offerman, a two-time All-Star who is managing Tigres, said fans were loud from the first pitch, just like in the Dominican Republic.
“They were ready to show everybody the way they enjoy the game,” Offerman said.
For Águilas center fielder Juan Lagares and Tigres pitcher Hansel Robles, both former Mets, the game was a homecoming. Lagares, who won a Gold Glove with New York in 2014, left in the third inning with leg tightness.
“I was waiting for this day. To come back to this stadium for me is something very special,” Lagares said before the game.
Wilfrido Vargas’ “El Africano” blared during batting practice, a DJ spun records between innings and the Eagles mascot cheered and waved a flag. Tony Peña, the five-time All-Star who took over as Tigres’ manager in the last week, had his warmup jacket zipped to the neck.
Players lined up along the foul lines for introductions, as if for a postseason opener, Águilas in yellow and black and Tigres in blue and gray. The scoreboard touted the games as “Titanes del Caribe,” or “Titans of the Caribbean.” The Dominican national anthem followed “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a small Dominican flag was unfurled in center field, and fireworks were set off. David Ortiz caught the ceremonial first pitch.
Miguel Andujar, claimed by Oakland off waivers from Pittsburgh on Monday, hit cleanup for Tigres, and the Chicago Cubs’ Christopher Morel batted cleanup for Aguilas. Morel scored the first run on a single by Cardinals prospect César Prieto after reaching when Arizona first baseman Tristin English misplayed his second-inning grounder for an error. Francisco Peña, five years removed from the big leagues, followed with a sacrifice fly off Cleveland’s Logan Allen, who took the loss.
Águilas’ Starlin Castro was doubled up at second base on a fly to left field for the final out of the third, preventing a runner from scoring on what would have been a sac fly. Alexander Canario, who made his major league debut with the Cubs in September, added an eighth-inning sac fly against José Valdéz.
Leuris Gomez got the save, finishing a two-hitter.
“I played in Korea. I played everywhere, but the environment is just different,” Williams said. “It was exciting. First time I could really hear the fans actually when I’m on the mound.”
Next year’s Caribbean Series, an event started in 1949, will be played at a Major League Baseball regular-season ballpark for the first time when the Miami Marlins host the 25-game tournament from Feb. 1-9. Major League Baseball has moved regular-season games to London; Mexico City; Monterrey, Mexico; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Sydney, with the first series in Seoul, South Korea, scheduled for March. But no games have been shifted to the Dominican Republic.
“What MLB has been demanding is to have a better stadium,” Offerman said.
An expanded weight room is under construction in the Mets clubhouse and seats behind home plate are being built into an expanded club area.
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